One girds oneself for some serious hammer time when an opening fight scene of History's compelling and robust new drama series, "Vikings," delivers all the expected gore and blood spatter.
Yet, beyond its blunt-force trauma, "Vikings" turns out to be an adroit and even elegant surprise, simply by aping some of the basic skills of a successful cable drama. The care shown for its dialogue and acting gives it "Sons of Anarchy's" sense of scope, while the 1,200-year dial-back lends it a dash of "Game of Thrones's" medieval mood. And a relatively modest budget keeps "Vikings" honest, in a "Spartacus" way, as a caution for those tempted to take it too seriously.
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Premieres at 10 p.m. Sunday, March 3, on the History channel
But what I was most reminded of while watching the first five addictive episodes of "Vikings" was HBO's much-missed "Rome."
"Vikings," created and written by Michael Hirst (who wrote the film "Elizabeth" and created Showtime's "The Tudors"), isn't that grand, but it possesses that show's same air of confident storytelling.
It also has a Titus Pollo of sorts as its lead -- that is, a conflicted antihero brute as a sympathetic protagonist -- in the form of Ragnar Lothbrok, an arrogant Viking plunderer with a scientist's curiosity about the world beyond his own.
The character is pulled from Norse history; the rest is pure literary license. As Ragnar, Australian actor Travis Fimmel (a former Calvin Klein underwear model) brings to the character a wry, earthy and relatable complexity. With his piercing blue eyes, scraggly blond beard and dreadlock-mohawk, he looks like he's only a few tattoos away from selling artisanal gin at the downtown Fargo farmers market -- and I mean that in a complimentary way. He's Hägar the Hipster, and the far end of cable is in sore need of such a man.
Ragnar is no pure-hearted Thor. In his village, he's a well-respected pillager and warrior, but he's also desperate to lead his own voyages. The local tyrant, Earl Haraldson (a terrific performance from Gabriel Byrne), prefers sending the town's troops eastward to the Baltic for their summer raids. Ragnar insists that great lands and riches await them if they'll only sail west -- and to prove it, he's been dabbling in the 8th century's equivalent of high tech: navigation, compasses and a faster longship.
With his jealous older brother, Rollo (Clive Standen), and assorted shipmates (who look like the entire cast of "Whisker Wars"), Ragnar embarks on a secret westward voyage, discovers England, and plunders the living daylights out of a peaceful monastery in Northumbria. The group returns with the spoils of their too-easy ransack -- chalices, jeweled crucifixes, icons -- but the earl is more threatened by Ragnar's ambition than delighted by the net gain. Ragnar surrenders his booty to the earl, but keeps a frightened young monk named Athelstan (George Blagden) as his slave.
Ragnar takes Athelstan home to his farm-by-the-fjord, where he lives with his wife, a former warrior named Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick) who's now a stay-at-home mom to the couple's two children. Here, the network pauses to honor whatever's left of the old History channel days, giving us glimpses of the domestic details of the Lothbrok household -- the chores, the meals and the, uh, wife-sharing, let's call it. One thing I always wind up longing for in period adventures like this is a sense of daily life. It always seems, in this genre, that we are always either doing battle or swilling grog after the battle; but what else do we do? What's on a Viking's mind?
This is the show's real strength, the way it effortlessly ushers us into Ragnar's life and carefully considers its characters, giving them a depth that transcends all the violent stuff (which is, by the way, marvelously shot).
Athelstan's monotheistic belief in God deeply offends Ragnar's Viking faith, yet he cannot help but desire to learn what his slave can teach him, and this forms a narrative backbone for the series: The monk schools the Viking and vice versa; Fimmel is especially good at conveying Ragnar's sense of wonder and doubt. An uneasy friendship emerges between master and slave, complicated further when Ragnar and Lagertha unsuccessfully beckon the chaste Athelstan to join them in bed for their vigorous romps.
"Vikings" is filled with an urgent, voracious, gritty and even sexy sense of the hyper-macho world it's trying to portray. The people we're rooting for are murderers, thieves and occasional rapists -- displaying a disturbing arsenal of moral flaws that cable viewers have come to accept as de rigeur. In a way, it's all just another iteration of Tony Soprano, as "Vikings" emphasizes a core pride and nobility in this tribe of thugs and galoots. We are meant to understand that Ragnar's urge to see what lies beyond the western horizon isn't merely about greed, nor is it about good and evil. What he's feeling is the existential tug of history and fate.