March 4, 2013



THE VIKINGS:  Sunday 10PM on History Channel

In its pilot, at least, THE VIKINGS, which marks History Channel’s first step into the world of continuing scripted drama after its massive success last year with the Hatfields and McCoys miniseries, is so rudimentary a piece of historical fiction that it might as well have been written in the Hollywood equivalent of 800 AD.

Our stubbornly visionary troublemaking hero is Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel, who played Tarzan on the WB’s ill-fated series).  His antagonist is the ruthless, greedy local nobleman Jarl Haraldson (Gabriel Byrne, with a natty little moustache).  Haraldson owns all the local boats that his peasants use for their yearly raiding parties, and he invariably sends them east to attack Russia.  But Ragnar believes in using the sun’s shadow to guide the boats, and he’s determined to sail west to new, unplundered territory, with the help of half-crazy yet brilliantly innovative ship designer Floki (Gustaf Skarsgard).  Meanwhile, Ragnar’s badass wife Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick) is lusted after by just about every man who crosses her path, including Ragnar’s jealous brother Rollo (Clive Standen).

Although the script is by Michael Hirst, whose career includes the Elizabeth films with Cate Blanchett as well as the Camelot and Tudors series, the dialogue is primitive and there isn’t a hint of shading to the characters, who are as singularly good and utterly bad as they come.  One assumes that the nuggets of historical detail sprinkled throughout are well-researched (when Ragnar’s son attains manhood, he’s given dirt and salt to remind him of the land and sea, and Haraldson’s wife kisses him on the mouth), and there’s a little mysticism here and there, including the requisite blind seer, but that’s about all for flavor.  As the series goes on, it’s clear enough that Ragnar will continue to challenge Haraldson and will almost always be right except when the plot requires him to make a critical mistake (probably because he’s been tricked into it), and it will all lead to a climactic confrontation between the two adversaries.

Vikings is effectively visualized, and it moves along fairly well, directed by Johan Renck (who, wearing an entirely different hat, was behind the supremely uncompromising and polarizing Sundance film Downloading Nancy).  It’s anyone’s guess what attracted Byrne to the project, since presumably he would have been in demand for any number of TV series, while the rest of the cast simply goes through its paces.  Unless it gains in depth as it goes on, Vikings is hardly drama of historic proportions.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."