‘If we are honest, it wasn’t particularly good’: looking back on the first Netflix original, 10 years later

<span>Photograph: Collection Christophel/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Collection Christophel/Alamy

Why a little known streaming service put its faith in Lilyhammer, a decidedly average show about the Norwegian adventures of a mafia boss

When you think of Steven Van Zandt’s acting work, your mind will automatically flick to The Sopranos. A vast, swaggering monument of a show, The Sopranos quite rightly holds the reputation of playing a pivotal role in the history of television. But let us also not forget that – 10 years ago this week – Van Zandt followed The Sopranos with another show. And it was a show which was every bit as important a milestone in TV’s evolution. That’s right, let us all wish a happy anniversary to Lilyhammer.

You remember Lilyhammer. It was a Norwegian show about the messy misadventures of a mafia underboss living in the witness protection programme 100 miles north of Oslo. It ran for three seasons and Bruce Springsteen had a cameo in the final episode. If we are being completely honest, it wasn’t particularly good. But, when it debuted in 2012, it was the very first Netflix original series. And what better way to mark its 10th anniversary than rewatching it to see how Netflix has changed over the years? There isn’t any. So we did it. Here are our learnings.

Lilyhammer was a strange choice to launch with

This was back when there was a groundswell of prestige TV floating around, when Mad Men and Breaking Bad were redefining television on a weekly basis. Lilyhammer, however, was stilted and saggy. Tonally it couldn’t seem to decide if it was a quirky character piece or an out and out crime drama. And, although his spectrum of grunts and shrugs was well deployed in The Sopranos, having to operate as the emotional fulcrum of an entire show was proof enough that Van Zandt was really no actor.

Lilyhammer: an underwhelming drama about a mobster in snow.
Lilyhammer: an underwhelming drama about a mobster in snow. Photograph: Collection Christophel/Alamy

It’s even weirder when you consider what Netflix had coming up

In 2011, Netflix realised that the best way to drive new subscribers was to offer original content. In March it hired David Fincher to help adapt the BBC series House of Cards for the service. And then, while it waited for that show to reach fruition, it co-produced Lilyhammer with the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK1. Lilyhammer beat House of Cards to screens by almost exactly a year. And so, when it comes to writing the history of how streaming services began to turn the tables on traditional broadcasters, an underwhelming drama about a mobster in snow will go down as the key series.

Netflix is now much, much better at knowing what viewers want

The streaming service’s biggest achievement this decade has been in how it analyses user data. It knows the type of shows you watch, the times you watch them, when you are most likely to check out, and a million other things. As such, it can confidently commission a new show and finesse it according to data to ensure that it will have a baked-in audience. You have to assume this technology was much more rudimentary a decade ago, because no algorithm in the world would suggest that the best show with which to launch a television revolution is a show about Silvio Dante in Norway.

It also now knows how to win awards

When House of Cards won its first Emmy in 2013, it completely upended the traditional broadcaster applecart. Until then, Netflix wasn’t even seen as television – at that point, people were still referring to House of Cards as a series of webisodes – and this is something it has maximised on ever since. At last year’s Emmys, Netflix blew the rest of the competition away, winning 44 trophies. Its nearest rival, HBO, won less than half that amount. With the best will in the world, the only way that Netflix could have won an award when it only had Lilyhammer would be if the Emmys initiated a new category entitled Most Unsatisfyingly Gimmicky Premise.

But maybe, Netflix has gotten too good at what it does

With success comes competition. This has been a decade of such extraordinary growth for Netflix that others were sure to join the fun. A decade ago, paying a monthly subscription for access to 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 blockbuster franchises such as Marvel and Star Wars to tempt subscribers away. Apple TV+ is proving to be adept at comedy, with shows such as Ted Lasso and The Afterparty. HBO Max is dragging old favourites such as Friends and Sex and the City back out into the open air. Back when it was just a plucky underdog, showing people what Van Zandt would look like in the snow, Netflix had the run of the place. A decade on, and its ascendancy can no longer be guaranteed.