The Netflix streaming library just got a new TV series that you almost certainly have never seen before.
"Lilyhammer," a new series starring former "Sopranos" star Steven Van Zandt, is the first show to be released exclusively in America by Netflix as part one of the company's push to become a creator of premium content. The fish-out-of-water dramedy made its official U.S. debut Monday, with all eight episodes of the first season available online for immediate viewing.
Netflix's Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos announced the launch of "Lillyhammer" on the Netflix blog, trumpeting it as "the first of many brand new, original and exclusive series to debut on Netflix."
"This show is different in many ways," Sarandos wrote. "First of all, this is surely the most ambitious original show to premiere online in history. The presence of an American star like Van Zandt and the production quality and the length of the episodes position 'Lilyhammer' in the class of programing usually only found on premium pay television."
The darkly comedic "Lillyhammer" is centered on a New York mobster (played by Van Zandt) who enters the Witness Protection Program and is sent to Lillehammer, Norway. Hijinks ensue.
The show is immediately available for American, Canadian and Latin American Netflix streaming customers, and has been airing in Norway for the past five weeks. Sarandos boasted in his blog post that "Lilyhammer" is already the most watched show in Norwegian television history.
England's BBC network announced on Feb. 5 that it had reached a deal with Netflix to bring "Lillyhammer" to British televisions, too.
On this side of the pond, however, the show will initially be available only online and on Netflix. The DVD and streaming company owns the rights to "Lillyhammer" in the Americas for "multiple years," Netflix spokesman Steve Swasey told HuffPost. When Netflix's contract with the production company behind "Lillyhammer" lapses, the show could find its way onto an American TV station -- for now, though, only Netflix streaming subscribers will be able to watch the show in the United States, Canada and Latin America.
Although Netflix will be watching to see how "Lillyhammer" performs, Swasey emphasized that the company is not necessarily depending on original and exclusive content for its future, and that it will continue to devote much of its budget to popular shows from the networks and big movies from the studios.
"[Original programming at Netflix] is something between a test or an experiment and a full-fledged initiative," Swasey said. "We're not putting all the wood behind the arrow and we're not just dabbling in it either...It's something we're working on, but the major portion of our budget is still going to be our TV shows and movies."
That original content may become more important as TV shows and movies become more expensive. Many of the key streaming contracts that Netflix had signed with the major movie studios will expire in 2012 and 2013, and with content costs expected to soar during contract negotiations with those studios this year, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has said that creating original, must-see content is at least part of the company's strategy for future success. To that end, Netflix has commissioned several high-profile new shows, including a new season of canceled cult classic "Arrested Development," as well as the premiere run of the David Fincher-Kevin Spacey series "House Of Cards" in a reported nine-figure deal. Netflix outbid HBO and Showtime for the rights to the latter show.
Though "Arrested Development" and "House of Cards" will soon follow, the mobster dramedy "Lillyhammer" is first out of the chute. Netflix streaming subscribers in the U.S., Canada and Latin America can watch it here.
CORRECTION: The original article incorrectly stated that Netflix was planning on releasing a Richard Linklater documentary; Hulu, not Netflix, will release it in early 2012.