History’s latest voyage into the scripted seas, “Vikings,” is sort of an unrelenting cheese-fest, and as constructed, that’s not a bad thing. Created by “The Tudors'” Michael Hirst, the nine-episode series offers a bawdy, not-quite-pay-cable-strength look at these Scandinavian scavengers — a more simpleminded version of “Game of Thrones,” since there are only two combatants vying for power. Still, those willing to put their brains on autopilot will find the serialized story pulling them along like a steady tide, potentially furthering the channel’s inroads into successfully bastardizing its brand by redefining “history” to mean, “Whatever attracts younger demos.”
In a way, the basic plot resembles the prologue of “2001,” this time with a bearded barbarian discovering a tool that bestows power upon him within the tribe and threatens the existing order.
Only instead of a club, Ragnar (Travis Fimmel, who starred in the WB’s short-lived “Tarzan”) has acquired a sundial, allowing him to brave sailing west to sack and pillage, instead of more customary raids of the played-out Baltic lands to the East. The suggestion does not sit well with the Earl (Gabriel Byrne), who rules against such an undertaking, only to have Ragnar and a hardy band — including his bruising brother Rollo (Clive Standen) — circumvent those orders and set off to ransack what turns out to be England.
Ragnar’s triumphant return — with plunder and a captured priest (George Blagden) in tow — only makes the Earl more suspicious, setting in motion an eventual faceoff. Along the way, we’re treated to all kinds of insights into the Vikings’ warrior culture, where rape is considered a spoil of war, and Ragnar’s wife (Katheryn Winnick) is every bit the sword-wielding badass he is.
While this isn’t a particularly deep dive into history, and makes no pretense of such, there are enough bloody battles to leave Fimmel with crimson streaks across his face for what seems like half the running time of the five previewed episodes. That said, the producers engage in a bit of a cheat by presenting Ragnar as a more enlightened savage, participating in less wanton slaughter than his fellow travelers, in order to help him remain somewhat sympathetic as the story progresses.
If it’s not high art, the moody exercise (like “Tudors” shot in Ireland, with an appropriately dreary look courtesy of cinematographer John Bartley) achieves a level of atmosphere and momentum that makes it work as a mild diversion, and the plot and pacing pick up in subsequent hours.
Vikings have always lent themselves to a certain kind of “B” entertainment — witness the 1958 movie “The Vikings,” a scenery-chewing feast starring Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis — and this latest iteration proves no exception. Moreover, History has paired these plundering polytheists with the miniseries “The Bible,” which contains enough slaying, slashing and coveting to make them oddly compatible.
Taken together, those factors should provide “Vikings” a chance to reward History with more Nielsen booty — and embolden the network to continue braving the scripted world’s unpredictable currents.
Filmed in Ireland by Octagon, World 2000 and Take 5 Prods. in association with Shaw Media, and distributed by MGM Television. Executive producers, Michael Hirst, Morgan O’Sullivan, John Weber, Sherry Marsh, Alan Gasmer, James Flynn, Sheila Hockin; producers, Steve Wakefield, Keith Thompson; director, Johan Renck; writer, Hirst.
With: Travis Fimmel, Gabriel Byrne, Jessalyn Gilsig, Gustaf Skarsgard, Clive Standen, Katheryn Winnick, George Blagden.