Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Lilyhammer: Following up on another Scandinavian TV hit?

Steven Van Zandt in "Lilyhammer"

Does anyone even care who killed Rosie Larsen any more?

The AMC remake of a hit Danish series, The Killing returned for its second season last weekend, but still hasn't answered the question of who brutally murdered the Seattle teenager. Instead, the murder investigation stretches on and on, with scene after scene of dogged Seattle cop Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos) pondering life and mulling suspects in a perpetually rain-drenched setting (the show films in Vancouver).

Not surprisingly, The Killing's stretched-out storyline has elicited response ranging from the measured ("Red herrings are not acceptable plot devices or story accelerants," sniffed The Hollywood Reporter's Tim Goodman) to the vociferous ("I want to smash your face into the cliff you left me hanging on," read one viewer missive sent to the show's producers.)

Story continues below advertisement

Remaining followers of the American version are still in for a wait since AMC has already said the killer won't be revealed until the second-season finale. "In order to do justice to the story we fell in love with in the first place, we're resolving the murder at the end of Season 2," said AMC head of original programming Joel Stillerman.

The original version of The Killing (Forbrydelsen is the original title), meanwhile, is a TV success story. Already a ratings hit in Denmark, the show has become a phenomenon in Britain, where it has attracted such high-profile viewers as Prime Minister David Cameron and the Duchess of Cornwall. Airing on BBC4, The Killing regularly draws a larger audience than Mad Men.

Dark, moody and similarly rain-swept, the Danish version of The Killing wrapped up its murder investigation in its first season and tackled a new murder for its second series. The third season is currently filming and will begin airing this fall.

The Scandinavian flavour has clearly registered with British viewers, who more recently became hooked on the Danish political drama Borgen. Coming soon to British television is the U.S.-Norwegian co-production Lilyhammer (airing on Netflix in North America) and the Danish-Swedish crime drama The Bridge, about a police investigation following a murder on the Oresund Bridge – with the body situated halfway in Sweden and halfway in Denmark.

So what are the creative ingredients that separate a real Scandinavian TV drama from its imitators? Even now, NBC is mounting an American take on Borgen, as perceived by two former producers on Friday Night Lights. The remake's writers should consider these five vital variables:

Start from scratch

"We don't do adaptations," says Morten Hesseldahl, director of culture for DR, the Danish Broadcasting Corporation, which produced Forbrydelsen and Borgen. "Everything has to be original and written directly for TV. The writers find it rewarding that we hold to the principle of one vision. The writer – not the director – has the final word."

Story continues below advertisement

The same sensibility went into Lilyhammer, a co-production between the Norwegian broadcaster NRK and the American pay-TV service Netflix, in which Steve Van Zandt (Silvio in The Sopranos), plays a New York mobster who enters the witness protection program and chooses the town of Lillehammer, Norway, as his new home. (He falls in love with the city while watching the 1994 Winter Olympics.)

Filmed entirely on location, Lilyhammer – the show's title is a spin on the lead character's enunciation of the word – was conceived by veteran Norwegian TV writers Anne Bjornstad and Eilif Skodvin, who solicited Van Zandt's participation before writing the pilot.

"I had no plan whatsoever to act again and certainly no intention of playing a gangster again," says Van Zandt, whose regular occupation is playing guitar and singing backup in Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band. "But these two writers were so enthusiastic about the idea of a New York gangster dropped into Norway, where life is so conservative and there's very little crime. It was irresistible."

Don't dub

Forbrydelsen and Borgen were shown to Brits in their original format – and language.

"It was always extremely important to us these programs were subtitled and not dubbed," says Sue Deeks, BBC Head of Programme Acquisition. "You need to hear the language spoken to get the real authenticity of the piece."

Story continues below advertisement

The same principle holds on Lilyhammer, where Van Zandt's wise guy Frank Tagliano is the only English-speaking person among the quirky Norwegian locals – but still manages to be in the loop for most conversations.

"One of the hooks of our show is that my character understands Norwegian, but doesn't speak it," says Van Zandt. "We weren't sure this innovation would work, but it turns out there are quite a few people in Norway who do exactly that. Who knew?"

A tough lady lead

An unremarkable format needs a formidable female lead.

Case in point: Forbrydelsen's Sarah Lund (Sofie Grabol) is a world-weary detective handed a high-profile murder case during her final days with the Copenhagen police department. "Sarah is a good police officer and a strong, universal character. She's the heart of the series," says DR's Hesseldahl.

Similarly, on Borgen, Sidse Babett Knudsen steals the show as Birgitte Nyborg, leader of the fictional Moderate political party, who unexpectedly becomes Denmark's first female prime minister. (The show was filmed and aired before Danes voted in their first female prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, last fall.) Suddenly set upon by spin doctors, media types and various political animals, she's the real person dropped in among wolves.

"You want to watch this journey she goes on and how she adapts to power," says BBC's Deeks. "She's very idealistic but she has to compromise. I think viewers can easily relate to those qualities."

And on Lilyhammer, the tough lady is the fresh-scrubbed constabulary Laila Havland (Anne Krigsvoll), who has zero tolerance toward small local crime, yet remains completely unaware that her new next-door neighbour is a career criminal. "Laila's a good woman and a good cop, but not very good at recognizing gangsters," says Van Zandt.

Capture the culture

The first season of Lilyhammer was filmed without a single standing set – even the nightclub Frank takes over is an existing Lillehammer nightspot – and most of the support characters are non-actors signed to play quirky Norwegian locals.

"It's all real homes and real Norwegian scenery," says Van Zandt, who plans to shoot a second season once his current tour with Springsteen wraps. "Norway itself is like nowhere else on earth. Half the country could care less about whether the rest of the world notices them, and the other half is, like, 'Why does Sweden get all the attention?' "

A similar sense of place sustains Borgen and Forbrydelsen, both filmed in Copenhagen and wherever possible in existing locations. "The result is like a window into another world that's both different and the same," says Deeks. "You really get a sense of what the Danish lifestyle is about. You get that city's flavour."

A nice sweater doesn't hurt

It's cold in Scandinavian countries, so people wear bulky sweaters: Sometimes it's just that simple.

On Lilyhammer, it's almost unnerving to watch the mobster Frank attempt to blend into his new environment by wearing an Icelandic sweater. "Of course he looks uncomfortable in those sweaters," says Van Zandt. "The sweater is not his style and not something I would ever wear myself."

When Borgen first aired in the U.K. in 2010, the bulky sweater worn by Sarah Lund became a fashion craze.

"Everybody latched onto the police detective's jumper straight away," says Deeks. "There were so many articles written about the jumper and how the company that made them sold out and had to make more. There was even a knitting pattern for the jumper in a magazine here. It was quite funny."

Report an error Licensing Options
Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.