The History Channel is not usually the first place that I go for my television enjoyment; though I do like history, I abandoned them long ago when almost every special had something to do with WWII. I get it – “the greatest generation” – but there is only so much a person can hear about that stuff and for this person, the bar is set pretty low. I’m all Hitler-ed out at this point (that’s a sentence I never thought I’d have to write). Channel surfing has shown me that The History Channel has recently changed their focus, but their new slate of programming isn’t much interest to me either. I’m not really sure what Swamp People and Pawn Stars have to do with history, but those types of shows aren’t going to woo me back to the network.
I did, however, enjoy the Hatfields & McCoys miniseries that the History Channel did last year. So when it was announced that they were dipping their toe into scripted programing with their first series, I decided to give it a shot. While Vikings isn’t necessarily appointment television, I found it surprisingly enjoyable. It will certainly help fill the void until (the vastly superior) Game of Thrones returns later this month. But a solid cast and edgier than expected material, for The History Channel at least, makes Vikings a fun way to spend an hour.
Now comparisons with Game of Thrones are inevitable; while Game of Thrones is fictional (sorry – Westeros isn’t real), it certainly borrows its look and general mood from the European Middle Ages – with some dragons thrown in for good measure. So while many will look at Vikings as a Game of Thrones clone, Vikings is actually trying to historically represent that time period, while Game of Thrones is simply borrowing. So if anything, they are both relying on the same source material for different purposes. So on both shows you are going to see beheadings, crows, interesting facial hair and general filth. Of course, Vikings doesn’t help matters by casting a young man that has a passing resemblance to a young King Joffrey, though so far this kid doesn’t seem to be a sociopath (yet).
The general story of Vikings does differs from that of Game of Thrones; while there is some minor overlap – I think it’s required that all overlords be kind of jerks – the main focus so far is on Viking warrior Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel) and his family. Ragnar believes that there is land to the West to be discovered (and, one would assume, pillaged and plundered), a challenge to the conventional wisdom that it is impossible to sail across the vast sea. His lord Jarl Haraldson (Gabriel Byrne) forbids such an excursion, so Ragnar secretly commissions his own boat and assembles a team with his brother Rollo (Clive Standen) to test out his theory, in direct disobedience of his ruler.
While this certainly isn’t as sophisticated as Game of Thrones, I found myself drawn into Vikings. This is a show that could get cheesy very quickly, but those tendencies were tempered. My knowledge of Vikings is limited to what I’ve gleamed from Hagar the Horrible and Rose Nylund stories on Golden Girls, so I have no idea if there are historical inaccuracies in the series, nor do I really care. What I’m interested in are good storylines and compelling characters and two episodes in, Vikings appears to have both.
Now, it doesn’t hurt that star Travis Fimmel bears more than a passing resemblance to one of my personal favorites Charlie Hunnam (Jax on Sons of Anarchy). Even if the show was terrible, that would be worth tuning in for.
But Fimmel and Hunnam have more in common than just good looks and the ability to pull off a straggly beard. Both are able to pull off characters that are bad-asses, but that also have a heart. It’s early on in Vikings, but Ragnar seems completely devoted to his wife Lagertha (Kathryn Winnick) and his children. Both actors play characters that do bad things, but neither are necessarily bad men. I was unfamiliar with Fimmel before this show, but he does a nice job as the lead.
I was glad to see that The History Channel decided to “go for it” in regards to pushing the envelope on violence. You can’t really adequately tell the story of the Vikings without some brutality; these are not men who made a name for themselves by being well behaved gentleman. The first two episodes have featured any major warfare, but the opening sequence from the premiere indicates that they will not hold back when the story line calls for some viciousness. If a guy needs to be beheaded or be impaled by a spear, it will happen. Vikings is much tamer when it comes to sex; while there is plenty of bawdy language, most of the action takes place off screen. In other words, do not expect the “sexposition” (exposition occurring during sex) that has become a staple of Game of Thrones. You can get away with a lot more violence than nudity on basic cable.
Some other thoughts:
- I was so excited to discover that Gabriel Byrne is a member of the cast. I love him. He was so great as the therapist on the excellent, yet little watched, HBO show In Treatment. He elevates everything he’s in.
- I appreciate that they made Lagertha as much of a bad-ass as her husband. Women don’t get to be warriors in a lot of these shows, but she is not to be trifled with. She can handle her business. Arya Stark would be impressed.
- I know that Loki is an actual Norse god, but every time they reference him, I can’t help but think of The Avengers, and this scene in particular:
- New rule based on this show – never trust a guy named after a candy bar.
- GQ does its own Vikings and Game of Thrones comparison.
- It isn’t a show about Vikings if there isn’t at least one Skarsgård in the cast – Gustaf Skarsgård plays Floki and is the younger brother of Alexander (Eric, True Blood). Though he may not have inherited all of his brother’s devastating good looks, you can definitely see the family resemblance, especially in the eyes.
- The wife of Byrne’s Viking leader may look familiar – she was Mr. Shue’s crazy wife on Glee.
- Only the first episode has aired on television, but The History Channel has made the second episode available on-line in advance of its airing on Sunday night.
- My Sunday nights are already pretty swamped – The Walking Dead, Once Upon a Time, Revenge, Girls – but The History Channel repeats episodes several times throughout the week. So it is easy to catch up.
I don’t know that Vikings is going to be that significant of the show, but for their first foray into scripted series The History Channel at least made a show that is entertaining. I’m curious to see what happens to these characters down the line, so I’ll be continuing to watch. If nothing else, it serves as a nice appetizer while I impatiently wait for Game of Thrones to return. Vikings is not as substantial as Game of Thrones, but it’s not trying to be. Vikings has turned out to be a surprising little discovery.
Vikings airs Sunday nights at 10 pm on The History Channel.