Monday, April 30, 2012

Steven The Fixer

Steven Van Zandt has had a storied and varied musical career. He’s been a musician, a songwriter, and a record producer. He was a founding member of Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes and an early member of the E-Street Band. In fact “Little Steven” was all over the South Jersey music scene in the early Seventies, along with Southside Johnny and Bruce Springsteen. With his solo work, his record producing, his songwriting, and hosting a weekly syndicated radio show, Little Steven’s Underground Garage, most artists would find that the elements of a full life.

But by happenstance, Van Zandt’s artist career took a slight turn in 1999 when The Sopranos creator David Chase invited him to audition for a part in his new series. He was cast as strip-club owner and mob consigliore Silvio Dante. Van Zandt played the part of the level-headed (except when playing poker) mobster through Season 6 of the show, often with his real-life wife Maureen playing Sil’s wife Gabriella. [Even his1982 wedding had a sort of rock and roll fairy-tale quality, with Bruce Springsteen as best man and Little Richard officiating.] Although he had said he has no interest in acting beyond his role on The Soranos, fate seems to have taken him in another direction.

Van Zandt has done a lot of work in Scandinavia, producing records and even guest appearing as himself on a Norwegian soap opera. In 2010, he was approached by a husband and wife writing team, Anne Bjørnstad & Eilif Skodvin, to consider starring in a pilot they wanted to produce for Norwegian TV channel NRK. The series ended up being co-produced by Netflix and was shown on both Norwegian television and on-demand at Netflix. Van Zandt is also credited as a writer on all eight of the first season’s episodes.

Van Zandt plays Frankie “The Fixer” Tagliano, a Brooklyn Mafia boss and the season opener has him attending the funeral of his immediate boss. “The Commission” has appointed his brother as the new Boss-of-all-bosses, but Frankie thinks it’s a mistake. “You’re a bean counter . . .that’s why he never let you do anything but his taxes.” This puts Frankie on the new boss’s hit list and after an unsuccessful attempt on his life, Frankie decides to turn government witness for the FBI. But Frankie rejects the idea of going into witness protection in the usual way “I figure Lilyhammer . . .  didn’t you see the Winter Olympics in ’94: Clean white snow, fresh air, beautiful broads . . .” And so the FBI sends the former mob boss into exile in Lillehammer, Norway.

Enter Frankie in his new identity: Giovanni Henrickson, a half-Italian, half-Norwegian American settling down in a small town (less than 27,000 people) in the land of his father’s ancestors. Although he’s promised to turn over a new leaf, when a couple of young men on the train carrying him into Lillehammer behave like thugs, insulting and abusing passengers, Frankie follows one into the bathroom and gives him etiquette lessons, Brooklyn style.

Frankie finds out the FBI seems to have a sense of humor: The only food in the house is a frozen pizza. He meets his new neighbor who happens to be the town’s chief of police. When he checks in with the resettlement authorities, he meets the clownish supervisor assigned to help him settle into his new country, but who can’t seem to find Frankie a job better than pizza delivery man. Frankie wants to buy a bar and his attempt to bribe his way into it are coldly rebuffed. But he isn’t called “Frankie The Fixer” for nothing, and he soon finds the leverage he needs.

In short order, Frankie winds up with a two-man local “crew” to help him in his schemes. When they loot a local biker gang’s broken down truck of smuggled liquor, the gang figures out who was responsible and catches one of Frankie’s men in the bar and tapes him to a chair to question him. He resists with a display of Norwegian “omerta” and he and Frankie start out on a hilarious vendetta that ends up at the Olympic ski jump.

There’s a persistent joke about Frankie looking “arabic” that escalates when one of the local cops finds a picture of a wanted terrorist that looks like it could be Frankie wearing a keffiyah and sporting a beard. The cop plays with a local rock band that Frankie turns out of the bar he’s bought in an attempt to change the character of the establishment, so he already doesn’t like Frankie. Over the course of the season, he goes to extremes to prove Frankie is a terror suspect.

The comedy appeal comes in when Frankie’s anarchic and individualistic tendencies collide with the staid and bureaucratic mindset of the locals. The incident with the bar is but the first of Frankie’s run ins with the ponderous Norwegian bureaucracy. When a wolf starts to kill local livestock, Frankie is dumbfounded that the local authorities are more concerned with protecting the marauding predator than the local’s sheep. When he learns that his driving license isn’t valid in Norway, he finds out that it will take four months for him to pass all the classes required to obtain a valid local license. And there’s a spiteful side to the locals, too. When he objects to his pregnant girlfriend’s being assigned a male midwife, the doctor in town assigns them to a hospital in the next town over for his trouble. When he blows off the pompous, self-appointed head of his new condo apartment’s tenant’s association, he and his girlfriend and her son find themselves running out of the building in the middle of the night when the fire alarm goes off, only to find that they “somehow” missed getting the memo that it was a scheduled fire drill, with smoke bombs added for verisimilitude. Oh well, these things happen, ya know.

But Frankie has a way of landing on his feet and pretty much getting the last laugh. It’s a fun series, well worth watching. There are eight episodes on Netflix and another season is planned. Van Zandt speaks English throughout and the Norwegians speak in their own language with English subtitles, although they also occasionally speak English as well.

Life imitates art: The series was originally scheduled to air on Norwegian TV in early January, but had to be delayed because of issues with product placement, which is not legal on Norwegian airwaves.

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