Remembering the Unlikely Series That Launched Netflix’s Original Programming

"Lilyhammer" is where it all began

"Lilyhammer" premiere
Michael Shannon, Steven Van Zandt and Terence Winter attend the North American Premiere Of "Lilyhammer", a Netflix Original Series.
Jason Kempin

Right now, Netflix’s original productions have turned it into something akin to HBO at its peak combined with Paramount at its peak, with a little A24 thrown in there — oh, and fully international in the scope of its productions. Nowadays, it’s not at all surprising to hear that a big-name director or actor is working with the company. Ten years ago, though, was another story.

That’s when Netflix launched its first original series, Lillyhammer. The series starred Steven Van Zandt as a mobster attempting to live incognito in Norway. The cast was primarily Norwegian, but featured a few appearances by some of Van Zandt’s old colleagues — including fellow Sopranos alum Tony Sirico and some guy named Bruce Springsteen. At first it seemed like an unexpected flex from a company best known for sending DVDs in the mail. Now, it seems like the start of something massive.

Nettlix has taken to commemorating the event — even if, as the AV Club points out, there are a few qualifiers surrounding its distinction of “first.”

It also doesn’t hurt that Lillyhammer has reached the status of a fondly remembered cult show. And while it wasn’t Netflix’s first massive hit, the fact that the show that holds that distinction — the American remake of House of Cards — was built around an actor whose presence is now thoroughly toxic doesn’t exactly help its legacy. Alternately: who would you rather hang out with right now — Steven Van Zandt or Kevin Spacey?

Looking at photos taken from the gala premiere of the series, one notes the presence of a few actors who’d go on to star in Netflix originals at a point when that had a very different meaning — Russian Doll‘s Natasha Lyonne, for one. In a report from the Lilyhammer premiere written for The Paris Review, Adam Wilson wrote, “If this was the new face of television it looked a lot like the old face.”

Even now, this remains somewhat accurate. Netflix has given significant deals to television creators like Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy, after all, and it’s proven itself as willing to cancel underperforming shows as any other network. But it’s also worth noting that plenty of networks and cable channels now have their own streaming platforms with original programming found here, from HBO Max to Paramount+. For all that Netflix led the way, there’s also a sense of unexpected convergence. Had you watched Lilyhammer a decade ago, you might not have seen it coming; nonetheless, it’s where we are now.

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