Netflix’s northern exposure

Streaming media provider aims to get people to turn off TVs and watch original shows like ‘Lilyhammer’ online

I have seen the future, and as always I find it a tad unsettling.

Netflix just launched its first original TV series, “Lilyhammer,’’ and I knew I had to watch it. It’s set in Norway; in fact it was made by Norwegians, for Norwegian television. Norwegians are always funny. I know - I married one. Guess what? She went to school in Lillehammer.

The rather thick gag of “Lilyhammer’’ is that mobster Frank Tagliano, played by “Sopranos’’ familiar Steven Van Zandt, has entered the witness protection program and asked to be relocated to Norway. “I’m thinking Lillehammer,’’ he tells his G-man handlers. “Didn’t you see the Olympics of ’94? It was beautiful. Clean air, fresh white snow, gorgeous broads.’’


Netflix is using “Lilyhammer’’ as bait, hoping to lure TV viewers to move from cable and over-the-air broadcasts to watching shows on the Internet. Everyone has jumped into this pool: Apple, streaming video for iTunes; Hulu, the streaming video site; even as I started writing this piece, Verizon and Redbox, the DVD-kiosk people, announced a streaming video service. Comcast, which provides both cable TV and broadband Internet service - thanks for the recent price hike, you swine - also wants to stream me shows and movies on my computer.

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Like most Americans, I still watch TV on TV. I stream Netflix onto my dinky little netbook because its software hiccups on my other computers. Alas, only one person can view the tiny netbook screen. I understand that in some hypothetical future we’ll be downloading all our entertainment from the Internet. But I’m not quite sure how I will get there.

For instance, I devoured the Wall Street Journal’s recent how-to article called “Cutting the Cord on Cable.’’ I thought it would explain in simple terms how I could dump Comcast TV. But it didn’t sound simple, and it didn’t sound cheap. For one thing, I’d have to buy a new TV. The Journal recommends the Samsung D8000 3D, Internet-enabled LED Smart TV, “from $2,700.’’

My favorite magazine, Consumer Reports, tackles the nouveau TV question in its current issue. It reviews 83 new LCD TVs, of which only 16 are fully Web-enabled. None of the 14 plasma TVs reviewed is fully Web-enabled. There is a big exception here: Almost all of the 3-D models, which are pricey, display both streaming video and Wi-Fi feeds.

Even if your TV doesn’t stream the Internet, CR says, that’s no problem: “Just insert a thumb drive into the USB port [my TV doesn’t have one of these], connect a camcorder to the HDMI input, or put a memory card into the TV’s SD slot. . . . Even without DLNA capability, you can connect a laptop computer to your TV’s HDMI or VGA input to play content.’’


Gosh, I can’t imagine what’s holding me back.

What about “Lilyhammer’’? I watched six of the eight episodes, and enjoyed them. (My Lillehammer-educated wife, who I hoped would write this column for me, watched two segments and commented that “it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.’’) For obvious reasons Netflix wants to exploit Van Zandt’s connection to “The Sopranos,’’ where he played the murderous Sil. What are they supposed to do? Hype the charming Marian Saastad Ottesen, winner of the best actress award at the 2008 Kosmorama Trondheim International Film Festival?

Van Zandt, a.k.a. Steven Lento of Winthrop, can’t act a lick. He pouts his way through “Lilyhammer’’ the same way he got through “The Sopranos.’’ But he’s the price of admission to what turns out to be a charming, gentle satire of oh-so-socialist, politically correct Norway. When a marauding wolf threatens the Lillehammer suburbs, a policeman pompously informs Van Zandt/Tagliano that the “killing of wild animals is strictly forbidden in Norway.’’ Our hero arranges a hit. In another scene, a schoolteacher chides the mobster for breaking up a bullying incident. “We believe that dialogue is a much more effective weapon against this antisocial behavior,’’ she explains. “Interesting theory,’’ our man responds.

I was a tad surprised that Netflix’s famous we-think-you-will-like-this algorithm didn’t suggest I watch “Lilyhammer.’’ Mainly, if offers me “dark foreign films, with violence.’’ (I wonder why.) “The show’s not for everybody,’’ admits Netflix spokesman Steve Swasey. “It’s half in Norwegian, with subtitles. I think the algorithm is serving it up to the ‘Fargo,’ ‘Twin Peaks,’ and ‘Northern Exposure’ crowd. You know - quirky plots in snow.’’

It may not be for everybody, but it may be for you. Clean air, fresh white snow, gorgeous broads - I’m not sure the Norwegian tourism authorities could have phrased it any better.

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is