Television Review | ‘Vikings’: ‘Vikings’ Mini-Series, on History, From Michael Hirst

March 3rd, 2013

Jonathan Hession/History

Vikings Travis Fimmel is a Norseman with a yen to wander in this mini-series on the History channel, Sunday nights at 10, Eastern and Pacific times; 9, Central time.

“Vikings” is a mini-series about a band of professional pillagers with a disregard for human life and a relentless focus on gratifying material desires. So it is somewhat surprising that it is also a refreshing study in restraint.

The nine-part series, which begins on Sunday on the History channel, is a cousin of all those premium-cable shows — “Game of Thrones,” “Spartacus” — in which men in various combinations of fur, leather and armor hack one another to death with primitive weapons, and women are randomly naked and frequently abused.

But unlike those series, whose guiding premise is that too much is never enough, “Vikings” isn’t afraid to leave certain things to the imagination. All you fanboys who insist that you don’t watch “Game of Thrones” for the gratuitous nudity, here’s your chance to prove it.

The series was created by Michael Hirst, whose previous projects include “Camelot,” on Starz, and “The Tudors,” on Showtime, and it has the same relatively high production values. Sometimes the cinematography is downright arresting.

But what really drives the series are the performances, with Travis Fimmel leading the way as Ragnar Lothbrok, a farmer with a yen to go exploring and the spunk to defy the local leader, Earl Haraldson (Gabriel Byrne), who wants his plunderers to stick to the same old routes. Mr. Fimmel seems to have a natural glint in his eye, and he knows how to use it to affect a little-bit-of-crazy, lot-of-daring attitude.

Ragnar secretly has a ship built. (Best performance in the series: Gustaf Skarsgard as the flaky shipbuilder.) With his brother, Rollo (Clive Standen), and a new navigational tool, he sails west, where this group of Vikings has not ventured before.

He bumps into England, at which point the series becomes a pretty good examination of what might have happened when cultures from the Dark Ages collided. Unarmed Christian monks bear the brunt of the first contact, and they don’t fare so well against the warlike Vikings, a scene that, by the way, serves as a metaphor for the difference between this mini-series and another, “The Bible,” that History also rolls out on Sunday. “Vikings” has some power; “The Bible” doesn’t.

That “Vikings” is less violent and raunchy than its premium-cable cousins is, of course, partly because of the outlet it’s on, but even so, Mr. Hirst demonstrates a moderation that has become rare all across television. There is plenty of slicing and dicing here, these being Vikings, but not a lot of blood. The most overworked person in television lately has been the special-effects crew member responsible for making blood spurt in a six-foot arc (with the spurting shown in achingly slow motion). Here, at least in the early episodes, that specialist gets the day off more often than not.

“Vikings” includes sex as well, but Mr. Hirst knows that it is possible to convey that lovemaking or an assault is going on without showing every moment of it and every permissible inch of flesh. Sometimes the lusty plotlines, especially a scene in which Ragnar and his wife (Katheryn Winnick) offer a captured monk the chance to get racy, seem forced, as if someone felt that the genre required them.

Despite such occasional awkwardness, “Vikings” is an entertaining educated guess about what went on during an intriguing but underexplored moment in history.

Vikings

History, Sundays at 10, Eastern and Pacific times; 9, Central time.

Produced by World 2000 and Take 5 Productions. Created and written by Michael Hirst; Mr. Hirst, Morgan O’Sullivan, John Weber, Sherry Marsh, Alan Gasmer, James Flynn and Sheila Hockin, executive producers; Dirk Hoogstra and Julian P. Hobbs, executives in charge of production for History.

WITH: Travis Fimmel (Ragnar Lothbrok), Gabriel Byrne (Earl Haraldson), Gustaf Skarsgard (Floki), Katheryn Winnick (Lagertha), Jessalyn Gilsig (Siggy), George Blagden (Athelstan) and Clive Standen (Rollo).

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