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.