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There are certain kinds of series that primarily seek to entertain, such as Spartacus on Starz or Banshee on Cinemax. They don’t all have pretensions to greatness. Others such as The Tudors seemed to be stalking that ground but never found it, while The Borgias is on the right path and just getting better and better. Few, like Game of Thrones, come out fully formed and brilliantly top-tier from the start. Which brings us to Vikings, History’s nine-part scripted series — its first — created and written by Michael Hirst (Elizabeth, The Tudors).
It’s 793 A.D., and the Vikings are beginning to bust out of the Eastern Baltics. There’s a lushness to the series (reportedly clocking in with a budget of $40?million) with exteriors shot in Ireland and ample ocean shots (mostly CGI). There also are plenty of sword and ax battles, spearing and the like.
Hirst, who loves historical dramas, has in his exploration of Viking culture a winning combination: Because much of their history as rampaging barbarians was told by their victims, Hirst has said he wants to move past what might not be a complete picture. Conveniently enough for any dramatist, there appears to be a dearth of exactitude when it comes to the Vikings, allowing him to take plenty of creative license. And yet, that surely will be less offensive than what some historians said he did on The Tudors.
Vikings stars Australian actor Travis Fimmel (The Beast) as the warrior Ragnar Lothbrok, who dreams of sailing west — into uncharted waters that have claimed other Viking explorers — instead of east, the preferred hunting ground of the local chieftain, Earl Haraldson, played by Gabriel Byrne (In Treatment). The Earl doesn’t like to be questioned, governing with an iron fist (though one fault of Vikings is we’re not shown early enough that he has the manpower capable of holding back an uprising from within). When Ragnar finds a way to navigate the seas with more reliability, he tells the rest of the Vikings, in the presence of the Earl, that untold treasures lie west. Then, with the help of the slightly mad shipbuilder Floki (Gustaf Skarsgard, The Way Back), Ragnar and his dangerous brother Rollo (Clive Standen, Camelot, Robin Hood) gather up men and sail away in secret. Ragnar’s expedition is successful — he captures an English monastery full of gold and silver — thus starting an uneasy battle for power with the Earl.
Vikings suffers a bit in the pilot with some clumsy writing (“Have you got the balls to join us?”) and a mixture of accents that never finds consistency. Even Ragnar’s wife, a “shield maiden” played by Canadian actress Katheryn Winnick (Bones, Love and Other Drugs) and the Earl’s wife, played by Canadian actress Jessalyn Gilsig (Glee, Heroes) don’t sound similar. The acting also is a bit choppy in spots. But Vikings grows a lot in the second episode, then grows more in the third, etc. That’s encouraging, especially because Hirst’s worldview of the Vikings is coming into focus and the characters are beginning to broaden. All the lush Irish countryside doesn’t hurt, nor do the constant battles.
But while it’s clear that Vikings isn’t going to be Game of Thrones (despite the tagline “The Storm Is Coming” being all-too-close to Thrones’ “Winter Is Coming”), it’s a series that increases its entertainment value and interest level as it goes along. It doesn’t overreach for greatness and, despite the fact that being on History doesn’t allow Hirst the same leeway he had with sex and nudity on Showtime, it seems likely to find a healthy — mostly young, mostly male — audience.
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