Steven Van Zandt (right) does a wonderful job in <i>Lilyhammer</i>.

Steven Van Zandt (right) does a wonderful job in Lilyhammer.

Reviewer rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

What an absurd idea. And yet, how delightful. The very notion of a US-Norwegian co-production is kind of odd, and the reality as it's put into practice here even odder, but there's undoubtedly something delicious about a New York gangster (The Sopranos' Steven Van Zandt) going into witness protection in Lillehammer (a) because no one will ever find him there, and (b) he's been in love with the place since watching the 1994 Winter Olympics.

We're absolutely in the right place for all the usual fish-out-of-water tropes but rarely has a fish been so far from his home shore.

The word lugubrious may as well have been coined for Van Zandt, and, purely in that respect, there could not be greater contrast between his jowly, frowny visage and the fresh ruddy faces he finds himself among.

On the long train ride from Oslo, he earnestly sets himself to learning the language, but by the time he arrives in his new home, he hasn't quite mastered the pronunciation of his own new surname (Henriksen). Then he discovers the FBI has installed him in a cottage next door to the local chief of police. He's not a happy man. But he's alive, and he's resourceful. And by the end of this first episode, he's formed various unlikely connections within the small community, made some enemies, and discovered that nowhere is as rich with intrigue as an isolated mountain village.

Van Zandt, who co-created and co-wrote this with Norwegian collaborators, does a wonderful job, not quite reprising his role as Sil but certainly channelling that Sopranos vibe: no-nonsense, ruthless, capable of extreme violence, but also of firm friendship. He's also a man accustomed to leading and he's not that interested in adjusting to local customs and mores.

The Norwegian cast - the names of whom mean nothing to me but uniformly turn in excellent performances - provide terrific support. No one overplays the yokel but they're small-town folk who are used to an orderly life and are both alarmed and intrigued by this newcomer.

The look of this is typically Scandinavian - picturesque, but also a little shabby - and the contrast between the big sweeping shots of the town and worn, tight interiors perfectly captures both the isolation and claustrophobia of the place. Add a bone-dry humour and you have a fabulous character comedy-drama that's as unusual as it is entertaining.

Saturday, 8.35pm, SBS One