How 'Lilyhammer' Changed the TV World

'Netflix is opening a whole new golden era of television,' says Steve Van Zandt. Plus: Can the E Street Band play forever?

Steven Van Zant Lilyhammer
Courtesy Netflix
Steven Van Zandt in 'Lilyhammer.'
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When Steve Van Zandt's Lilyhammer premiered on Netflix in February of 2012, few people realized it marked the beginning of a brand new era of television. Although the show originally aired in Norway, it was the first time that Netflix offered exclusive content. The experiment worked, paving the way for hugely acclaimed shows like Orange Is the New Black, House of Cards and the long-awaited fourth season of Arrested Development

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"Netflix completely shook up the world," says Van Zandt. "They've been willing to invest and it's opening a whole new golden era of television that I predicted back with The Sopranos. Now it's gone to another level with digital distribution. This is just the beginning. There's going to be Google TV and Amazon TV. People are going to start their own networks and it's going to be wonderful to have that much money coming into the creation of content. It's going to be very, very healthy for everybody." 

The overwhelming success of Netflix-only programming did put a little pressure on Van Zandt when he started plotting out the second season of Lilyhammer, which premiers on December 13th. Suddenly, there were millions of people watching original shows on the streaming service, and they'd come to expect super-high quality offerings. "We caught everyone by surprise with the first season," Van Zandt says. "You can only do that once. I knew that in the second season we were going to have to be better in every way."

Lilyhammer centers around Frank "The Fixer" Tagliano, a New York mobster (played by Van Zandt) that moves to Lillehammer, Norway as part of the Witness Protection Program. He shacks up with a young teacher and has twins with her, but he also returns to his old ways in a country unaccustomed to rampant criminality. "He's never going to be completely integrated into that society," says Van Zandt. "But he is becoming a bit Norwegian and part of the culture. In this new season, we had some fun introducing a third element. Instead of Frank being the invader, he's going to be invaded by these English hooligans."

Watch an Exclusive Clip From the Second Season of Lilyhammer

Tagliano is also also forced to deal with fatherhood at a relatively advanced age. "They legislate fatherhood in Norway," says Van Zandt. "It's not an option. That's a shocking thing to us in America. We also have a great episode about racism. The eccentricities from Season One are still there, but the quality of the whole thing is up a notch."

Van Zandt is involved in nearly every element of Lilyhammer. In addition to starring in the show and co-writing it, he also worked on the music. "There was no music budget the first season," he says. "Now that we have one, I put it all into licensing great songs. I did the whole score myself for free. I did it from my own studio. That's what I spent the last six months on."

Before the first season premiered, many people were unsure that the show would appeal to viewers outside of Norway. "But I knew it could work," Van Zandt says. "I said to people, 'The way to make this more international is to make it more Norwegian – as Norwegian as we can make it. I want to know every nuance, detail and eccentricity that people might find interesting or different.' I also said, 'I want to make Norway a character in this show, because it's a complete mystery to most people.' No one knows a thing about it, so I wanted to reveal it in the best way I could."

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Van Zandt's long tenure in The E Street Band and his work on The Sopranos helped him to realize the show's potential. "I learned a lot from Bruce Springsteen and David Chase," he says. "Not only did I witness the miracle of New Jersey becoming fashionable twice in a lifetime, but they were both very similar in that their attention to detail and nuance and eccentricity is what makes their work interesting. . . People want to learn how other people live. It's just human nature." 

The show is a success in Norway beyond anyone's wildest expectations. "Half the country is watching the show," Van Zandt says. "I think it's because they're getting off vicariously on what this character is doing because they're too civilized to do it. That's one of the reasons why The Sopranos was least popular in Italy. The further you are removed from reality, the more you're going to enjoy it."

A third season of Lilyhammer is being written right now, even though a deal has yet to be inked. "It's very complicated," says Van Zandt. "We have a Norwegian production company, an English parent company and a German distributor. Then there's Netflix in Los Angeles. But I hope to know soon. We're supposed to shoot in January."

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The second season's shooting schedule meant that Van Zandt had to skip the E Street Band's Australian tour, kicking off a chain of events that culminated with Springsteen recording  his new album High Hopes with Tom Morello (who subbed in for Van Zandt) on guitar. "This time I'm going to the Australian shows," says Van Zandt. "I'm also doing the South African shows, which will be my first time there since I did the research for Sun City in 1984. That's a big deal."

This run of Springsteen shows in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand is being billed as a separate tour from the Wrecking Ball outing in 2012/13, but that's not quite how Van Zandt sees it. "This is kind of the end of a two-year tour," he says. "I was told. . . Well, who knows what I was told? But I'm looking at it as the end of a cycle. They told me this is going to be it for a while. But if they wind up doing anything else besides these shows, hopefully it will be in July or later so they won't conflict with the shooting of Lilyhammer, assuming we get a third season."

Fans are hoping that the tour does head to America sometime in 2014 since Springsteen opted to stage all his shows overseas this year. "We'll see what happens," says Van Zandt. "This new sort of rebirth of the band that we created last year, it's just the beginning of a whole other era. It could go at least another ten years. Bruce is in ridiculous shape. If we can keep up with him, we can keep going. He's still writing at this ridiculous high quality level and shows no sign of slowing down. He has not wavered one bit in contenting to write this great stuff. So, as long as he's writing great stuff, we're in great shape. We could go forever."

Right now, however, Van Zandt is focused on his acting career, and worrying little that he'll be forever typecast as a mobster after The Sopranos and Lilyhammer. "When I was first offered this show I thought to myself, 'This is the last thing I should be doing career-wise,'" he says. "But then I said to myself, 'What do you really care about? Do you care about people thinking about you as this versatile actor or do you care about doing quality work?' Who knows, maybe some day I'll do something else. That's the one good thing about being the writer. If I really feel like I want to do something different, I'll write it and give it a shot."