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The History Channel’s decision to cast its net into uncharted waters this season is proving well worth the risk. On March 3 it debuted two relatively expensive productions that represented significant departures from the kind of programming the network is known for and scored big with both.
The bigger headline-maker of the two, the five-part miniseries The Bible, drew more than 13 million viewers, making it the No. 1 cable telecast of the year. But the show that ran after it, The Vikings, reeled in plenty of fish as well, drawing 8.2 million viewers and beating the major networks in the key 18- to 49-year-old demographic in its timeslot.
Though they air side-by-side on Sunday nights and History Channel reps have been working overtime to link their successes, the two productions bear little resemblance to one another. If The Vikings, the first scripted series in the History Channel’s, well, history, owes a debt to anyone, it is to two breakout hits on other cable networks—AMC’s The Walking Dead and HBO’s Game of Thrones.
Like The Walking Dead, The Vikings doesn’t shy away from the gore factor, complete with conspicuous decapitations and dangling entrails. And though ostensibly based on real accounts of raiding Scandinavian warlords, like Game of Thrones (no slouch in the bloodletting arena itself), it capitalizes on a smattering of fantasy-esque sequences, including mist-shrouded appearances by the Norse god Odin and some pagan priests who look like they stopped by on their way to a Marilyn Manson video.
Yet, despite the objectionable content, which in the first two episodes also includes an implied rape and two seduction scenes, it wouldn’t be fair to write the series off as one that merely trades on shocking material. (And sadly, compared to other cable programming these days, the material described above may barely warrant a raised eyebrow from most audiences.) The grisly battles and sexual innuendo are largely beside the point. The show’s true merit lies in stunning Irish sets, a phenomenal cast, and an engaging story in main character Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel ), a family man and part-time farmer who longs to explore, and yes, pillage, a mythical land to the west called England.
Unfortunately Ragnar’s paranoid, scheming chieftain Earl Haraldson (Gabriel Byrne) doesn’t believe any such place exists and wants to continue sending his vassals to raid the poor, picked-over coast of Russia. Young, ambitious, and charismatic, Ragnar refuses to let the dream drown. He commissions a new kind of longship that can handle an ocean voyage, enlists a cabal of like-minded adventurers, and sets off westward with a scientific breakthrough that allows him to navigate direction on a notched, wooden disk.
The show’s exploration of Norse culture and its values is riveting enough, but when Ragnar and his band land on the doorstep of an English monastery, the story really hits its stride. Why, the Vikings wonder, don’t the meek little men in brown robes fight back? What are all these words that they’re writing? And most importantly, what makes them try to save a book rather than all the treasures of gold and silver that fill their cloister?
When Athelstan (George Blagden), the one monk who can speak the barbarians’ tongue, explains that the book is the Gospel of John and offers the only hope for light in a dark world, Ragnar decides to spare his life and brings him home as a slave. The opportunity this scenario presents for examining two distinctly different worldviews in an exciting, fictional context makes The Vikings stand out from the rest of the increasingly better-than-network cable pack.
If the History Channel really wants credit for breaking new ground, though, it should use The Vikings as an opportunity to combine cable’s recent strides in producing superior products with content that doesn’t drive away half of its potential audience (you don’t have to re-write history or feature warm, fuzzy murderous rampagers, just don’t highlight every swing of the ax!). If the show that airs right before it proves anything, it is that millions (more than 13 million) are hungry for strong historical storytelling that doesn’t require a parental warning at the beginning of the show.