It’s a little strange to “like” the new History channel series “Vikings,” which is set in the Dark Ages. The Norse hero of “Vikings” is a forward-thinking pillager who decides to break tradition and go west to wealthy Great Britain, rather than east to Russia, to do his brutal raiding. By the end of episode 2 of this nine-part series, we’ve seen him and his boatload of crusty savages massacre the population of a monastery off the coast of England and steal their gold icons. Plus, the guy has a mohawk that even a professional wrestler would scorn.
But I like “Vikings,” History’s first foray into scripted episodic series after the huge success of the scripted miniseries “Hatfields & McCoys.” It’s flawed, with the kinds of cheesy trappings and historical freedoms that turn off some viewers. The show, which premieres Sunday at 10 p.m., falls loosely into the love-it-or-hate-it category of heated-up period dramas such as “The Tudors,” “The Borgias,” and, most of all, “Spartacus.” Not surprisingly, “Vikings” is the creation of Michael Hirst, whose credits include “The Tudors,” “The Borgias,” and “Camelot.” The guy knows his way around torch-lit basements, milords, and their lusty lasses.
But the series is nonetheless transporting in its way, largely because it doesn’t try too hard to soften or civilize the characters. It’s 793 AD and they are barbarians living in dirt and steeped in superstition. Travis Fimmel plays Ragnar Lothbrok, who feels he’s connected to the Norse god Odin and born to discover new worlds. The local chieftain, Earl Haraldson (Gabriel Byrne) is set in his ways and insists his raiders go east; “There are no lands to the west,” he yells, when Ragnar suggests the west. “You are a farmer, you should be content with your lot.” Ragnar promptly ignores his boss, gathers a group, including his macho brother Rollo (Clive Standen), leaves behind his wife and children, and goes to sea.
Fimmel, from Australia, is a one-time Calvin Klein model, which makes him an easy target for ridicule. I was impressed, though, by his transformation. His skin is blemished, his eyes are weary, and he doesn’t rely on sexy eyes as he becomes the smirky nonconformist leader. He showed a lot of promise in the short-lived series “The Beast,” in which he costarred beside Patrick Swayze, and he continues to impress here despite some accent issues. His scenes with Katheryn Winnick, who plays his wife, Lagertha, are tinged with comedy, particularly when they fight. She is a warrior who likes to give a good wallop every now and then.
Byrne’s Earl is fixated on maintaining his own power, and he is threatened by Ragnar’s ambition. Looking a bit like Liam Neeson in “Rob Roy,” with long stringy hair, Byrne brings an effective sense of menace to the series. At one point, he invites a servant to sleep with his wife, Siggy (a fantastically cagey Jessalyn Gilsig), then has him punished when he moves to take advantage of the offer. They make a wonderfully horrible couple, Byrne and Gilsig, and complicated, too, since much of their awfulness is fueled by grief.
Ragnar needs to watch out for them, as well as for Rollo, who isn’t at ease with his brother’s growing influence. He’s a snake. But while his blood brother is jealous of him, Ragnar develops a brotherly relationship with a monk, Athelstan (George Blagden), whom he has taken as a slave. Ragnar is an inquisitive man with an eye toward innovations; his wish to travel to unchartered waters is based on his fascination with a newfangled “sun board” navigation device. Ragnar lets Athelstan live because he is curious about Athelstan’s God.
The show is well-designed, with gorgeous and yet cold landscapes that aren’t particularly inviting. The title sequence, too, is beautifully made and haunting. At times, some of the tools of war appear too new and shiny to convince, but, fortunately, not new enough to break the spell.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Matthew