The greatest moment in the history of television — and one which will surely remain unsurpassed for ever — was the final episode of The Sopranos. Part of its genius was to reward all of us who had stuck with it so loyally for the previous 85 episodes by allowing us to make up our own minds how it ended.
Did Tony get wasted by those hitmen-like figures we saw entering the restaurant where he was having the rapprochement dinner with Carmela? Well, maybe. Or did the Feds finally get their wiretaps and informants properly organised and put Tony away for ever? Or did he — as I prefer not to stop believing — waste all the people who’d come to kill him and then get off, on a technicality, whatever charges the Feds threw at him.
There was much ambiguity about the fate of the minor characters, too. Silvio, for example: the one played by the actor Steven Van Zandt, who looks so like your idea of a real mafioso it comes as rather a shock and disappointment to discover that in real life he’s just a guitarist in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. The last we saw of him he was on a life-support machine. Did he croak? Did he pull through? What?
Well, now we have an answer of sorts. He’s not playing exactly the same character in Lilyhammer (BBC4, Tuesday) — that would be wrong; just a really-quite-similar one. In this drama, he’s a senior New York mobster who has to join a witness protection programme after testifying against his boss. The place he chooses to assume his brand-new identity is Lillehammer in Norway because he liked the look of it when he saw it on TV during the 1994 winter Olympics.
Or so the script claims. The real reasons, I suspect, are that Lilyhammer makes for an intriguing, euphonious title, that two of the scriptwriters (‘write about what you know’) are Norwegian, and that the producers sense that there’s a big market right now for Scandi-drama of all varieties. No doubt they were delighted when they got an actor of Van Zandt’s stature on board. A dream come true, indeed.
But I have to say on the evidence of the first episode it’s a bit of a disappointment. If it were The Sopranos on ice, that would be fine. What it is, though, is more like Sopranos and Heartbeat on ice. Or maybe Sopranos and Midsomer Murders on ice. Or possibly, in its lamer moments, Sopranos and The Vicar of Dibley on ice. Which is to say it’s far tamer and more clichéd and ‘heartwarming’ than any series about a brutal Mafia killer relocated to Norway has any right to be.
Take the opening scene. The hero is on a train, on the last leg of his journey to his new home. And guess what? As he is sitting there listening on his headphones to a Teach Yourself Norwegian tape, a troublesome youth — blond, of course, very, very blond: not a hint of any ethnic persuasion, no siree! — enters playing loud music on his ghetto blaster. Then, when a nice elderly man has the temerity to complain, the blond youth nicks his hat. This sort of thing happens all the time in Norwegian train carriages. Those pesky blond youths with their loud music.
Anyway, our hero, of course, is compelled to act. He knows he shouldn’t: part of the deal of this witness protection programme is that he should cause no trouble whatsoever in his new location — if he does he’s on his own. (Is that really how witness protection programmes work, incidentally? I doubt it. I should have thought that the authorities bend over backwards to make them work. You don’t just give a senior mafiosi a paper-thin new identity, plonk him in the middle of nowhere, then hope he makes it on his own — helpful though this might be to a drama series’ comedic potential…) So, unobtrusively, he follows blondie to the toilets and tells him to turn down the music and make with the apologies to the old man, or he’ll regret it. Blondie does as he’s told.
Unobtrusively — but not so unobtrusively that his act of decency hasn’t been noticed both by the old man AND the really quite attractive blonde woman with a little boy sitting opposite. Might there be some kind of dramatic pay-off to all this, later in the episode? There most surely will. Not only is the blonde hottie destined to become the love interest. But, also, the old man recognises him at a crucial moment just as he’s about to get nicked for illegal wolf-killing (a bit no-no in Norway, apparently) by the local police chief. So, gosh, wasn’t it lucky that realistic incident happened in the train carriage. Otherwise the whole episode wouldn’t have been nearly as rich and neat and satisfying.
And I haven’t yet told you about the even less plausible plot twist in which a ghastly bully in the local social security department gets his comeuppance by — no, go on, guess! If your answer was: thanks to the hero’s chance discovery of some incriminating photographs of the bully in a wooden hunter’s lodge in the middle of the forest, then you guessed right.
I think they should have borrowed one of The Sopranos’ more psycho characters instead. Joe Pantoliano’s multiply homicidal Ralph ‘Ralphie’ Cifaretto, maybe. No danger of it coming over too cosy and Dibley with him on board…
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 15 September 2012