Ohen you think of the acting work of Steven Van Zandt, your mind automatically goes to The Sopranos. A grandiose monument and swagger of the show, The Sopranos rightly has the reputation of having played a central role in the history of television. But let’s also not forget that – 10 years ago this week – Van Zandt followed up The Sopranos with another show. And it was a show that was just as important as a milestone in the evolution of television. That’s right, let’s all wish Lilyhammer a happy birthday.
You remember Lilyhammer. It was a Norwegian show about the messy misadventures of a mafia underboss living in the witness protection program 100 miles north of Oslo. It ran for three seasons and Bruce Springsteen made an appearance in the final episode. If we’re being completely honest, it wasn’t particularly good. But, when it debuted in 2012, it was Netflix’s very first original series. And what better way to mark its 10th anniversary than to watch it again to see how Netflix has changed over the years? There are not any. So we did. Here are our learnings.
Lilyhammer was an odd choice to get started with
This was back when there was a wave of prestige TV floating around, when Mad Men and Breaking Bad were redefining TV every week. Lilyhammer, however, was stiff and limp. Tonally, he couldn’t seem to decide if this was an original character or outright crime drama. And, while his spectrum of grunts and shrugs was well deployed in The Sopranos, having to function as the emotional linchpin of an entire show was proof enough that Van Zandt really wasn’t an actor.
It’s even weirder when you consider what Netflix had to come.
In 2011, Netflix realized that the best way to attract new subscribers was to offer original content. In March he hired David Fincher to help adapt the BBC series House of Cards for the service. And then, while waiting for this show to materialize, she co-produced Lilyhammer with the Norwegian public channel NRK1. Lilyhammer beat House of Cards to screens by almost exactly one year. And so, when it comes to writing the story of how streaming services began to turn the tables on traditional broadcasters, a disappointing drama about a gangster in the snow will go down as the key series.
Netflix now knows much, much better what viewers want
The streaming service’s biggest achievement this decade has been the way it analyzes user data. It knows what kind of shows you watch, what times you watch them, when you’re most likely to check out, and a million other things. As such, he can confidently order a new show and tweak it based on the data to ensure it will have an onboard audience. You have to assume that this technology was much more rudimentary a decade ago, because no algorithm in the world would suggest that the best show to start a television revolution with is a show about Silvio Dante in Norway.
He also now knows how to earn rewards
When House of Cards won its first Emmy in 2013, it completely upended the traditional broadcaster applecart. Until then, Netflix wasn’t even considered TV – back then people were still referring to House of Cards as a webisode series – and that’s something it’s been maximizing ever since. At last year’s Emmys, Netflix blew up the rest of the competition by taking home 44 trophies. Its closest rival, HBO, won less than half that amount. With the best will in the world, the only way for Netflix to win an award when there was only Lilyhammer would be if the Emmys launched a new category called Most Unsatisfyingly Gimmicky Premise.
But maybe Netflix got too much well what he does
With success comes competition. It’s been such an extraordinary decade of growth for Netflix that others were sure to join in the fun. A decade ago, paying a monthly subscription to access a streaming library seemed like a weird novelty. Now every major television network has one, and each of them has something to offer. Disney+ has hit franchises like Marvel and Star Wars to attract subscribers. Apple TV+ is proving itself to be a stickler for comedy, with shows such as Ted Lasso and The Afterparty. HBO Max is bringing old favorites like Friends and Sex and the City back into the open. Back when it was just a brave underdog, showing people what Van Zandt would look like in the snow, Netflix had the run of the place. A decade later, its ascendancy is no longer guaranteed.