Floki (Gustaf Skarsgard) is ready for battle in "Vikings." (Jonathan Hession / History )
Have the Vikings gotten a bum rap?
At least according to popular imagination, they were fearsome barbarians in horned helmets who pillaged their way across Northern Europe during the Dark Ages. And while it's true these seafaring Norsemen were hardly a bunch of peaceniks, the new History scripted series "Vikings" will attempt to bring some nuance to the caricature of the bearded brutes when it premieres Sunday.
"The great thesis is, 'You think you know the Vikings, but you don't," said series creator Michael Hirst.
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The series represents uncharted territory in more ways than one: At 10 episodes, it will be History's first full-length, scripted program, arriving on the heels of the massively successful miniseries "Hatfields & McCoys" and accompanying the debut of the channel's new miniseries "The Bible."
"Vikings" marks the latest step in History's dramatic makeover in recent years from a stodgy and largely irrelevant channel that played a seemingly infinite loop of WWII documentaries to a top-5 cable network and industry trendsetter.
For the Record: An article in the March 1 Calendar section about History channel's "Vikings" gave the wrong first name for Dirk Hoogstra, senior vice president of development and production at History.
As the screenwriter of the film "Elizabeth" and all 38 episodes of the cable series "The Tudors," Hirst has a knack for bringing epic historical tales vividly to life. His latest series, set in the late 8th-century Scandinavia, will join a rather short list of sympathetic pop cultural depictions of the Viking people.
"They're always 'the other.' They're the guys who smash down your door and ravish and kill you and take your possessions — perpetual bad guys," Hirst said by telephone from his home in England.
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Of course, a brave and hunky protagonist can make any number of sins more palatable to the contemporary viewer. Vikings" has Ragnar Lothbrok, a legendary Norse hero who led raids on France and England. Played here by Australian actor and former Calvin Klein model Travis Fimmel, Ragnar is a visionary family man who clashes with ruthless tribal leader Earl Haraldson (Gabriel Byrne) over his plan to explore the uncharted waters to the west.
"It's like any other drama: the first rule is to get you involved in the characters. They don't have to be nice, they have to be powerful and they have to be compulsively watchable," Hirst said.
Hirst took pains to emphasize the Vikings' positive contributions to Western civilization; their rich mythology and surprisingly progressive gender politics — who knew? — all figure prominently in the series, which was filmed over five months at the brand-new Ashford Studios in County Wicklow, Ireland.
For Nancy Dubuc, president of entertainment and media for A&E Networks, scripted content has been a dream since she took over the reins at History in 2007.
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"We can't be the well-rounded and powerful brand that we are without bringing this form of storytelling to our network," she said. "But I also believed very firmly that if we were going to do it, we were going to do it to win, not just to play," she said.
Dubuc's first big move at the network was greenlighting the reality series "Ice Road Truckers." When that became a hit, she added a spate of male-skewing, nonscripted series centered on adventurous, eccentric subjects: "Pawn Stars," set in a Las Vegas pawn shop; "Top Gear," an adaptation of a hugely popular British automotive show; and "Swamp People," about alligator hunters in the Louisiana bayou.
The rebranding led many to remark on the network's increasingly liberal interpretation of the word "history," but the proof is in the pudding: History has seen six straight years of ratings growth, with a prime-time audience that now averages 2 million viewers.
In 2012 it was home to three of the top-20-rated shows in cable ("Pawn Stars," "American Pickers" and "Swamp People"), and it is also the No. 1 entertainment network in cable among men ages 25 to 54, a population that tends to be underserved in the female-centric world of basic cable.
"They've found a really great niche as a place where advertisers can reach men really easily that isn't sports," said Ethan Heftman, senior vice president and director of national broadcast at the media-buying firm Initiative.
History made its first, ill-fated attempt at scripted television with "The Kennedys," the $30-million miniseries that was yanked after a chorus of complaints and later aired on the obscure Reelz channel. The brouhaha was quickly forgotten thanks to "Hatfields & McCoys," which became the highest-rated broadcast in the history of ad-supported cable when it aired last spring, attracting an audience of 14.3-million viewers for its finale. The miniseries also earned critical praise, racking up 16 Emmy nominations and two wins.