Whatever Floats Your Boat
“Vikings” on History Channel
History Channel, having exhausted the possibilities of Nazi-based documentaries, long ago turned its attention to reality television—both faintly historical (“American Pickers,” “Pawn Stars”) and not-at-all-historical (“Ax Men,” “Swamp People,” “Big Rig Bounty Hunters”). Sadly, they missed the window of opportunity on a Nazi hunter reality show. (Tracking down 90-year-old mass murderers sounds kinda depressing.) Now, the network is giving fiction a try with its first scripted, episodic series, “Vikings.”
The show is a heavily dramatized account of legendary Norse hero Ragnar Lothbrok’s rise to fame. Though Lothbrok probably didn’t exist outside of Viking sagas, “Vikings” touches on enough historical truths to count as faintly educational. The show concentrates on Ragnar (former underwear model Travis Fimmel, star of the short-lived WB series “Tarzan and Jane”), a Viking sailor who dreams of sailing to the fabled lands of the West and pillaging to his heart’s content. Top Viking chieftain Earl Haraldson (big-time actor Gabriel Byrne) won’t entertain any such flights of fancy and orders his tribesmen off on another unprofitable raid of raided-out Russia. But Ragnar’s got an ace up his sleeve. He’s discovered the fabled Sunstone, a device that allows one to spot the sun even on cloudy days. Combined with a primitive compass, Ragnar believes this is enough to get him safely to the uncharted West. He teams up with his crazy, boat-building pal Floki (Gustaf Skarsgard) to construct a ship and begins to assemble a secret expedition. Throw in a kick-ass wife (Katheryn Winnick), a backstabbing brother (Clive Standen), a wussy son (Nathan O’Toole) and a Christian monk (George Blagden) for good measure, and you’ve got plenty of story potential.
Vikings, not being the most literate people on Earth, didn’t write a lot of their history down. Most of it was penned by Christian missionaries, who weren’t inclined to create particularly flattering portraits of pagan cultures. So it’s nice to see something from a Viking point of view for a change. But don’t go thinking the Vikings weren’t a violent breed. Created and scripted by Michael Hirst (“The Tudors,” “The Borgias”) “Vikings” clearly favors blood and spectacle over pure historical accuracy. It’s close in tone to Starz’s “Spartacus”—though it can’t come close to matching that show’s level of gore and nudity. Shot on location in rugged Ireland, the series is lush and authentic-looking. A few key digital effects (particularly a series-opening glimpse at Valkyries plucking dead heroes from a battlefield) help sell this near-mythical world.
Currently scheduled as a nine-part series, “Vikings” has given History its best ratings to date (alongside the ridiculous-but-popular Roma Downey-produced version of “The Bible”). If it holds, expect the network to milk another season. And why not? There are plenty of myths about our friend Ragnar. And who doesn’t like a little history lesson when it’s peppered with beheadings, drunkenness and high seas piracy?
“Vikings” airs every Sunday at 8 p.m. on History.