Review: The two web services are taking on traditional television, but HBO and Showtime have little to fear in “Battleground” and “Lilyhammer”
There's nothing particularly original about Netflix and Hulu's ambitious new slate of TV-style programming.
Hulu’s “Battleground" and Netflix’s “Lilyhammer” are unique for their platform, not their premises. When you take away the fact that they are being streamed, not broadcasted, nothing about these polished programs has a “water cooler” effect.
HBO and Showtime needn't lose any sleep about either of these.
“Lilyhammer” got the ball rolling a week ago. The gangster comedy launched its entire first season of eight episodes last week. Now it’s “Battleground's" turn. The political campaign dramedy debuted Tuesday, with 13 episodes rolling out on a weekly basis.
The programs aren’t bad, they just aren’t terribly memorable. “Battleground” has an attractive young cast and provides an intermittently amusing look at the inner-workings of a Wisconsin political race.
“Lilyhammer” boasts Steve Van Zandt (Silvio of “The Sopranos”) in an engaging performance as a mobster on the run in Norway.
Despite their modest virtues, neither series is likely to become the kind of “Mad Men” or “Sex and the City” that made a TV name for their networks.
“Lilyhammer” is a standard fish out of water comedy with Van Zandt reacting with an inveterate law-bender’s shock to the morally upright citizens of Lillehammer. That approach was already wrinkly when “Crocodile Dundee” and “Northern Exposure” came out more than a generation ago.
“Battleground” also draws heavily on the tried and true. Like “The Office,” the series is told in the faux-documentary style that is nearly ubiquitous on sitcoms and offers a dog-eared wacky workplace setting.
It’s sad to remember that when Ricky Gervais’ original U.K. version first migrated to our shores it felt shockingly fresh. Now it is the rare television family or office that doesn’t have a camera crew trailing behind, documenting its every move.
However formulaic, the shows nonetheless represent a huge step forward for nascent web television. Both programs are slick and polished, and clearly money is being spent on them.
“Battleground” has its modest virtues. Jay Hayden is an engaging presence as the slick-talking campaign manager constantly spinning and flailing about for novel ways to keep his underfunded candidate afloat.
The plots of the first two episodes made available for review have a nice shaggy-dog quality, taking time out from television debates and rallies to show the characters hanging out and rapping about their inter-office romances and feuds — everything it seems, but politics. Given the glut of presidential campaign coverage these days, “Battleground”s’ rigidly apolitical approach is welcome relief, even if it is a bit bizarre for a show that is ostensibly about politics.
“Lilyhammer” is the stronger of the two shows. Setting the program in Norway may not have revelatory, but the town is beautiful in a wintry way and it is amusing to see Van Zandt’s tough guy adjust to his perpetually cheerful new neighbors. His lead-footed response to his club employee’s desire to unionize or awkward attempts to bribe a job placement officer are little comic gems.
However, there aren’t enough of those moments and too often “Lilyhammer” has a meandering pace that properly evokes the quiet way of life in a snow drenched ski resort, but doesn’t leave viewers desperate to stream the next episode.
The true test of online streaming’s ability to vie for viewers with traditional television networks and cable will come with the launch of Netflix’s “House of Cards” and “Arrested Development.” The former has Kevin Spacey in a leading role, while the later represents the return of a beloved cult hit.
If these early efforts are any indication, Hulu, Netflix and YouTube, which is investing millions in original content, are not so interested in reinventing the wheel.
They are drawing heavily on what works in broadcast programs and partnering with veteran talent.
The result is less a bold new approach to entertaining than it is a natural next step in the breakdown of barriers between the internet and television. Viewers have already become platform agnostic. They are less aware of whether they are watching a season of “Weeds” on Showtime or streaming it on Netflix.
Like the derivative original programs cropping up all across the web, digital streaming isn’t that exotic anymore.