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TV Weekend: History Launches Vikings (and an Action-Packed Bible)

Human history is full of people finding creative ways to open up one another's bodies, and History channel has realized that it's sitting on vast, untapped reserves of historical bloodletting

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HISTORY

The hot ticket in cable drama, as I wrote in TIME magazine this week, is bloody violence, the shootier and slashier, the better. As it happens, human history is full of people finding creative ways to open up one another’s bodies, and at some point in the recent past, History channel realized that it was sitting on vast, untapped reserves of historical bloodletting.

Thus last year gave us Hatfields and McCoys, the sepia-toned charnelhouse of a miniseries that was one of cable’s biggest hits of the year. And this Sunday night, History premieres Vikings (10 p.m. ET), which applies the tropes of many a hit cable action series to the Norse Dark Ages, with a result that’s not bad if not wildly original. If it worked for the Capital One ads, why not for a weekly drama?

There’s nothing complicated about Vikings, and nothing subtle about its promises of Nordic slashery: it opens with a scene of Spartacus-style, videogame-stylized combat, as if to say, “Don’t worry, dudes gonna get messed up here!” The series’ basic conflict is simple too. Ragnar (Travis Fimmel), a hot-blooded, ambitious young Vike, wants to expand his tribe’s raiding range by using new technology—a compass, which will allow boats to reach the British Isles for plunder. His chieftain, Earl Haraldson (Gabriel Byrne), clings myopically to his old ways and to control of the clan, insisting, “There are no lands to the west!”

It’s a furious generational conflict among beardy guys fighting over how to pursue their clan’s business opportunities, bellowing in a big, manly, whose-horns-are-bigger competition. Think of it as Søns of Anarchy (and replace the Harleys with longboats).

Vikings doesn’t nearly have the narrative ambition of a Game of Thrones or the political subtleties of a Rome. Nor is the dialogue as ambitious as Ragnar’s territorial aims: this is the kind of show where, in a heated fight, the protagonist’s shieldmaiden wife expresses anger by shouting, “I’m so angry with you!”

But if you measure Vikings by the standards not of cable’s most literary dramas but, say, History channel’s quasi-drama historical-reenactment documentaries, it’s much more convincing. In fact, it holds up pretty well against the tabloid history of series like Showtime’s The Tudors and The Borgias. Vikings has a fitting Scandinavian calm to it, saying with its brooding what it doesn’t with its stiff dialogue.

Though the first episodes of the season don’t find a lot of complexities in its characters (the rebel captain, the wicked chieftain, the feisty warrior-woman), it is animated by historical ideas. The Norse people’s religion, for instance, is presented not as window dressing but as a driving force in their decisions–the notion of Valhalla and dying a good death, for instance, is everywhere here. Vikings’ larger story arc is really more about historical forces than individuals, which is itself an interesting choice for a TV series: it’s about how limited resources and transformational advances in knowledge–the compass is like the computer, GPS and smartphone of its day–can start wars and expand worlds.

History channel too is discovering new worlds to plunder for action drama. The same night, it’s premiering its miniseries adaptation of The Bible from Mark Burnett, which–at least in its early Old Testament episodes–takes full advantage of the many occasions in which characters do unto each other with sharp objects. History–secular or religious–is no gentle subject. And on History channel, it’s going to be far from a bloodless academic exercise.

6 comments
Lucelucy
Lucelucy like.author.displayName 1 Like

As someone who (not necessarily to my credit) responds to the horrors of waterboarding with "they've still got their entrails, don't they?," (and who is currently reading the current Bernard Cornwell art piece of bloody death by English warbow), I already have Vikings on the DVR list and will probably check out The Bible as well.  Doesn't mean I'll stick around.  I grew bored with both The Tudors and The Borgias (even though I would ordinarily watch Jeremy Irons do dishes), and got disgusted with Attila (I think sex and violence had something to do with it, but only because it seemed there was little else going on).

On the question of the shield maiden hollering, "I'm so mad at you" - I'm pure Norwegian on my mother's side.  And let me tell you, everything  Garrison Keillor says about us is true.  We are not expressive.  Well, I have become a little more so, but frankly I'm better expressing myself to the furniture (swearing like the proverbial sailor) than to real people ("That really miffs me off!").

In the meantime, this morning, I have fallen in love with both @Poppersciand @anon76, no matter who or what sex they are.  A conversation on a TV blog referencing Malory, Homer, and Virgil.  As background material for TV shows.  I sat on a fallen (scorched?) block of stone at Hisarlik, the modern site of Troy, and read the part in the Iliad where the Greek ships pull up on the shore, which is now a good couple of miles (at least) away.  Did either of you notice that sunrise blooper in the movie?

Poppersci
Poppersci like.author.displayName 1 Like

This week, I finished a long narrative poem about King Arthur. He and his men invade Europe, hunting for the Roman Emperor who has insulted him and bade him to pay tribute to his lands, which Arthur says were stolen from his family. His lands being all of Europe apparently. Once the war gets going, in the first few pages, there is not a page until the end where multiple beheadings, disembowlings, cutting off of limbs, cleavings horizontally and vertically through the body, and mass bloody slaughter are not minutely described. The poem is called The Death of King Arthur and it was written around 1400.

Poppersci
Poppersci

@Poppersci It's not Malory. Malory may have used it as one of his sources for his classic work--I don't know. It's an anonymous writer and the verse translation is by Simon Armitage.

anon76
anon76

@Poppersci

I'll see your 1400's Arthur poem, and raise you one ~ca 800 BC Iliad, by H. Omer.  Who knew that dactylic hexameter was so good at drawing blood?

anon76
anon76 like.author.displayName 1 Like

@Poppersci

Ha!  I read the Odyssey to see how it compared with 'O Brother Where Art Thou?', the Iliad to compare with Brad Pitt's movie, and the Aeneid merely out of a sense of completeness.  Don't tell any Grecophiles, but I liked the latter best.

In any case, I'd imagine that Gilgamesh would probably trump all for oldest & bloodiest, but that is one that I still haven't read myself.  Maybe if it's made into a movie ...

Poppersci
Poppersci

@anon76 @Poppersci To be quite honest, and to expose myself for the idiot that I am, I haven't read the Iliad. I read and studied the Odyssey but the first book, no. I started a few times, getting up to the catalogue of ships and Greeks and then stopped. No reason--I just put it away for something else. But let's have this thread: classic literature that is bloody and bloody good.