History Channel’s ‘Vikings’ debuts Sunday

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If the History Channel’s new dramatic series, “Vikings,” is any indication of how fast the horn-helmeted men of the north moved, there must be no truth at all to the claim that they hit the Western Hemisphere centuries before Columbus. Given the pace of the series, by my reckoning, the Vikings must be just off the Isle of Wight by now.


Row, boys, row.


Maybe the whole idea behind the glacial pace of the show is to make you think there’s more to it than there is. Created and written by Michael Hirst (“The Tudors”), “Vikings” is a retread of the old standby plot of the rebellious upstart defying the powerful king. It’s like Robin Hood with horns and furry leggings, not to mention like a hundred other Hollywood films over the years.


It debuts at 10 p.m Sunday on the History Channel.


Here’s what happens: Ragnar Lothbrook (Travis Fimmel) is an ambitious young Viking who has had it up to here with the annual raid of lands to the East. He is sure there are new lands to plunder to the West (Hirst has an almost lascivious love of the word “plunder.” Go ahead: say it several times – Plunder, plunnnnnder), but the grumpy head Viking, Earl Haraldson (Gabriel Byrne) will have none of it. The annual raid will target the East, as it always has.


Ragnar gets a local nut job named Flokie (Gustaf Skarsgard) to build a ship strong enough to endure a long voyage to the West and off they go, a whole ship full of Vikings who make it all the way to England, where they raid a monastery and collect a bunch of gold souvenirs, as well as a young priest named Athelstan (George Blagden) who becomes Ragnar’s slave. Skarsgard, by the way, is a gifted Swedish actor who first acted at 9 opposite his father, Stellan, in the film called “Code Name: Coq Rouge,” or, as the History Channel’s press materials want to call it, “Cod Name: Coq Rouge.” Something fishy there.


If there’s one thing Earl Haraldson doesn’t like, it’s having someone prove he was wrong. He’s happy enough with the loot, but still doesn’t trust Ragnar, so the next time Ragnar sets sail to the West, Haraldson makes sure he’s accompanied by one of his men.


The characters are interesting, many of the details of Viking life and culture are intriguing, and the performances are all quite good.


And yet the show has no compelling arc, and only brief flare-ups of action. There is conversation – a lot of conversation. In fact, there’s probably as much conversation in “Vikings” as there is in an Ibsen play, but far less action. The occasional attempts to speed things up sometimes become more confusing than helpful. For example, it takes Ragnar so little time to get from his cozy fjord to Northumberland, you’d think England was just next door and you could just pop over for a cuppa any time you wanted.


“Vikings” is a far cry from the History Channel’s “Hatfields & McCoys,” but I hope at least they were able to recycle all the earlier show’s beards and hairpieces.


Mostly, though, “Vikings” is disappointing because so much of the component parts are good, but are ill served by flabby direction and a gassy script.


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