Gabriel Byrne stars in "Vikings." (Jonathan Hession, History )
With the possible exception of that football team in Minnesota, the vikings have seen some fairly serious brand slippage over the years. Once the scourge of Europe, vikings have increasingly lost their mojo — the Wagnerian soprano in the horned hat and even the scraggly barbarians of Capitol One ads are actually Visigoths, although the Viking cruise line still proudly tours where its titular progenitors once conquered.
So the time is right for an image refurbishment, and here is History, in the midst of its own makeover, to provide just that. "Vikings," History's first scripted series, which premieres Sunday, leverages the grimy splendor, Middle-earth landscape and sword 'n' sorcery allure of "Game of Thrones" and embroiders it with just enough historical revelation to meet the network's original mandate without dragging down either plot or character — both of which are surprisingly compelling and complex. It stars a former Calvin Klein model and Gabriel Byrne, and that doesn't hurt either.
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The story revolves around Ragnar (Travis Fimmel, aforementioned former model), a man loosely based on a character of Norse legend with the same name. Here portrayed as a farmer with a feisty wife, Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick), and a passel of fine children, Ragnar is also a doughty warrior. But he longs for more. Not, mercifully, a singing career, just the chance to go west.
Unfortunately, Ragnar's tyrannical chieftain, Earl Haraldson (Byrne), insists that the time-honored routes east are the only safe choice for a people several centuries removed from the age of exploration. Buoyed by his possession of a sun stone, a bit of early navigational technology predating the compass, Ragnar enlists some of his comrades to join him on his quest.
After the eccentric but loyal Floki (Gustaf Skarsgard) has designed a next-generation longboat (an advanced keel allowed more weight to be carried longer distances), Ragnar and his pals set out to go where Haraldson has assured them there are no lands. Eventually, they find, and sack, the monastery at Lindisfarne, a historically accurate event that kicked off the viking age.
Although many monks are slaughtered and enslaved, Ragnar is clearly more interested in intellectual advancement than blood sport. When, upon their return, the men are stripped of their booty by Haraldson, Ragnar has the presence of mind to save one monk's life by taking him as his personal slave. Athelstan (George Blagden) and his one god fascinates our hero, with the added benefit of allowing scenes in which polytheism is neatly compared and contrasted with monotheism. (How parents looking for ways to make history interesting will explain Ragnar's friendly suggestion that Athelstan join him in the marital bed is up to them, but fair warning!)
Aside from answering many FAQs — burial rites were often cruel but the women could own property — "Vikings" is the tried and true story of an open-minded upstart challenging the corrupt establishment. Byrne's chieftain constantly tests the loyalties of those around him, often with the aid of his scheming wife, Siggy (Jessalyn Gilsig, who played Terri Schuester on "Glee.")
It is also a mostly noble attempt to humanize a group of people who have been reduced to the fact of their stature (tall) and their propensity for barbarism, and this requires a delicate touch. The brutality of any era that predates "Downton Abbey" has been accepted as rote by television audiences, who squirmed their way through depictions of smallpox vaccinations in HBO's "John Adams" and, more recently, the random bloody murders of just about everyone in "Hatfields & McCoys."
But there is no getting away from the fact that the vikings supported themselves through systematic piracy and pillaging. They were also canny seafarers and craftsman who contributed technologically and socially to civilization, but they did it in a way that doesn't mesh too well with the modern sensibility.
Fortunately, creator Michael Hirst, having cut his teeth on the feature film "Elizabeth" and then on Showtime's "The Tudors," is particularly adroit at keeping the action firmly planted in its own time and creating characters with enough internal tension to evoke emotional connection if not exactly sympathy. Even the villainous Haraldson is granted the extra dimension of grief; his sons were recently murdered in a particularly heinous way, so perhaps he can be forgiven for his madness.
Historically speaking, the role of Lagertha is the biggest stretch — a blade-wielding shield maiden, she accompanies Ragnar on one of his raids and makes it clear that rape will no longer be part of the viking program. Um, well, OK.
A writer has to do what a writer has to do, and as Richard Wagner understood, in courting an all-in demographic, it's tough to beat a hot, mouthy warrior queen. Even without the crazy hat.
When: 10 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-14-DLSV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language, sex and violence)
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