The first couple of hours of History TV's Sunday-night schedule belongs to God.
From 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., the Canadian specialty net will air the first two hours of the ambitious Mark Burnett/Roma Downey-produced miniseries The Bible.
After that, however, a much different roster of gods takes over -- Thor, Odin, Freyja, Hela and the trickster Loki, who inspire the passion and plundering that drives Vikings through a nine-hour miniseries run.
Vikings, an international co-production led by Canada's Take 5 Productions and Ireland's World 2000, takes on the difficult task of recounting the familiar Viking tales of raiding, looting, raping and massacring, while at the same time creating a central cluster of likable and at least somewhat sympathetic characters.
Series creator/writer Michael Hirst (Elizabeth, The Tudors) succeeds to a certain extent, by focusing on the inhabitants of one Viking village and the friction that develops between a chieftain who's set in his ways and a tribesman who has ambitions that reach beyond the accepted routine of farming and warring.
Ragnar Lothbrok (played by Travis Fimmel) is a soft-spoken but intensely driven fellow who has grown tired of the same-again pronouncements of local ruler Earl Haraldson (Gabriel Byrne) -- each spring, the Earl commands his forces to board ships and sail east to the Baltic lands, raiding the same set of villages and bringing home an ever-diminishing pile of plundered riches.
Ragnar, however, has a plan. After the leader dismisses Ragnar's suggestion that a voyage to the west might produce greater results -- my ships, my rules, the short-sighted Earl insists -- the rebellious farmer enlists the help of Floki (Gustaf Skarsgard), a local jester and mischief-maker who also happens to build boats.
With his own ship, Ragnar can assemble a crew in secret and set sail for the western destinations that have long been the stuff of rumours.
Ragnar's wife, Lagertha (Canadian Katheryn Winnick), who is much more than an average Viking housewife (her nickname is Shield Maiden, and she's rather handy with a broadsword), wishes to join her husband on his quest, but he refuses, telling her she must remain home to tend to the farm and their children.
Using a newfangled navigation device he acquired from a mysterious friend, Ragnar and his crew -- led by equally rebellious brother Rollo (Clive Standen) -- sail west and eventually reach the shore of England, where they drop anchor and head inland to raid a nearby monastery.
When they return home with a shipful of loot, Earl Haraldson is both enraged and impressed. He allows Ragnar to plan a second voyage; this time, dutiful husband Ragnar invites Lagertha to join in, leaving the farm and children in the care of Athelstan (George Blagden), a young Christian monk he captured and enslaved on the first western foray.
The Vikings' second trip to England is more challenging -- rather than encountering a huddled mass of praying monks, Ragnar's band faces off against a fully outfitted army and might fight for the treasure they plan to take home.
It is, at times, emphatically bloody stuff. But Hirst's script does a decent job of balancing stereotypical Viking misbehaviour and solidly grounded human drama. He doesn't succeed in making them completely sympathetic (remember the raiding, murdering, pillaging and raping?), but his characters are sufficiently interesting that most who tune in to Sunday's première will be invested enough that they'll return for at least another instalment or two.
The Canadian component of Vikings also includes Jessalyn Gilsig (Glee, Boston Public), who portrays Earl Haraldson's scheming wife, Siggy. Her idea of fun is flirting with assorted tribesmen just long enough to make the Earl so jealous that he has the targets of her affection killed.
She's a dark presence, but in a series that is -- both in tone and colour and in subject matter -- mostly grim and shrouded in damp mist, she fits right in.
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