The History Channel recently aired the show “Vikings” (also available on Hulu). This is the next in a lineup of historical (or pseudo-historical) dramas along the lines of Tudors, Medici, or even Game of Thrones. In fact, the History Channel’s first scripted drama is created by Michael Hirst and others from the team that brought the racy “Tudors” to life.
Some show descriptions contain the word “authentic”. It does use historical names and places, and events from the sagas. I want to like it. The subject is intriguing. Some of the sets and costumes certainly create the right mood. But the script itself is pattern and formulaic. It’s a bit too nice. I don’t know how you’d make characters based on actual Vikings sympathetic, but a bit of unusual writing, or a more believable glimpse into the life just might at least create more interest.
It’s “authentic” in the way Tudors was–that is to say, the major events and names of characters are taken from historical ones, stirred together, and then a lot of modern TV drama is stuffed around the bare outline of history. There is a kind of Wikipedia-level “authenticity” here. Ultimately, the show lacks the bite of in-depth research.
There is clearly a historical framework. And I don’t expect a lush television drama to be a history documentary. But I just wish it was a bit–well–better. The cast is good, with stars Travis Fimmel as our hero Ragnar Lothbrok, and the venerable Gabriel Byrne as Earl Haraldson. However, the plotlines could fit, with some tweaks, into any drama. The script is weak, full of ho-hum lines and “let’s explain this to our audience” setups.
Vikings isn’t groundbreaking. And perhaps it doesn’t have to be. It’s part of a genre, after all. There is no doubt that creating characters out of very scanty historical information might be a double-edged sword (so to speak). There is little known about them except that they were, like many warrior societies, brutally violent. However, why can’t we expect more from a drama than to rehash a stale formula? Even if it’s not genius, it should be better than a Capitol One commercial. When you’ve got a bunch of guys running around in Viking costumes, you need to be careful not to make your script trite and/or ridiculous. They don’t quite succeed. The following description of scenes from the first couple of episodes can illustrate my point:
SPOILER ALERT PAST THIS POINT
We open with some violence during a Baltic raid. Inexplicably, the only Vikings present are a pair of brothers, introduced as Ragnar and his brother Rollo . Also inexplicably, they are fighting in an open field, with no monastery, castle, or village in sight. What’s the point of conducting a raid in a place with nothing to loot?
We learn that Ragnar wants to sail west, to “mythical” lands called England. OK. He’s hired a shipbuilder that I can only describe as a weird/crazy tree person to build a boat in secret. We perceive that this guy, Floki, is supposed to be the “comic relief” character. We are introduced to the new navigational tool that will allow the Vikings to sail into the open ocean. Eventually, Ragnar and his crew, against the orders of the sinister Earl, set sail. Rough voyage. Mutiny of one from obligatory doubter. Tension as the crew wonders if they ever really will find land.
Then we get to Lindisfarne ( the actual English site of the first recorded Viking raid in 793). Where, by the way, the Vikings happen to land with pinpoint accuracy on this maiden western voyage. That’s a bit awkward, but I suppose we can forgive the telescoping of what must have been some previous exploration that wouldn’t move the drama along. We know that we’re at the climax of this episode.
Somehow, reading the accounts of the almost supernaturally terrifying lightning raids, I pictured something a lot less leisurely and casual. The word “Viking” struck terror into the hearts of Europeans for centuries, after all. The actual accounts report a sudden descent of screaming hordes, bursting out of the night, looting and pillaging and leaving blood in their wake. Not these guys. No. They land the ship in broad daylight, in full view of the monks who are just too scared to to anything, including run, apparently. It’s just not a very “raid-y” raid. The fearsome Vikings take a moment to apply a little war paint on the beach. They all shuffle slowly and casually to the front gate. They pause and look at each other. They knock, after which the gate falls down. Is the raid about to begin now? No. They mosey through the courtyard and up to the door of the room where all of the monks are (not exactly) hiding. They look at each other.
The monks are praying in fear. The door bursts open and here come the Vikings! The raid begins at last. Except, then they all pause and look at each other again. Finally, with all the energy of a shrug, they begin stabbing monks. Because, you see, that’s what Vikings do.
END OF SPOILER
I suppose the casual attitude is meant to depict the vast martial superiority of the raiders. They don’t have to be afraid, or move swiftly, or even make a plan. They are just that good. But it leaves the whole viewer experience as a laughable anticlimax. Not what you’d expect from Vikings. It’s vaguely entertaining, and there are glimpses of efforts to put the history, or at least the mythology of the sagas, into the timeline of documented fact. And there’s plenty of room for imagination, as the written history is extremely spotty. It’s the awkward attempt to hang it all on cliched modern plotlines that takes the fun out of it. You’ve got the cast, the visuals, (bad green screen sailing scenes excepted), but it leaves me wishing–as I frequently do–that just one television writer would try something new once in a while.
Mediocrity aside, will I turn on “Vikings” again when I need some mindless relaxation? Yes. For a while, at least.