Cable's love affair with scripted TV series continues as History launches its first drama, the ambitious, rough and tumble "Vikings" (10 tonight). The casual brutality of the characters may turn off some viewers who don't want to spend time with raping, pillaging sociopaths -- particularly if those viewers are coming to "Vikings" from its lead-in, History's "The Bible" miniseries.
But after a few episodes that provide a better understanding of the period and the motivations of lead character Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel, "The Beast," "Tarzan"), "Vikings" becomes compulsively watchable.
One of "Vikings' " greatest attributes -- its setting in the Eastern Baltic in 793 AD -- also may be its Achilles' heel.
It's not a period of history that has been used much as backdrop for entertainment in recent years. Aside from Thor, most recently depicted in movies as a super hero from another planet, and the innocuous Hagar the Horrible newspaper comic strip, Vikings have not gotten a lot of serious play in American popular culture.
On the other hand, that makes the timing of "Vikings" ideal: The series is fiction but still offers a sense of real, known history.
But while TV viewers have grown accustomed to antiheroes -- Tony Soprano, Vic Mackey, Dexter Morgan -- Ragnar is particularly rough-hewn, killing random strangers on raids all in the name of amassing hoards of treasure.
This is where some people may tune out. "Vikings" asks viewers to cheer for characters who, at first glance, appear to be nothing more than bullying, plundering thieves. It certainly colored my first impression and on through the fourth episode, which has raiders invade a town, interrupt a church mass, steal a gold cross off the altar and slit the priest's throat. But after I got used to the harshness of the setting/period through the first five episodes, "Vikings" hooked me with its characters and story.
The series is written by Michael Hirst, whose past TV efforts have included one success ("The Tudors") and one dud ("Camelot").
Viewers first meet Ragnar and his tough wife, Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick), at home. He's an ambitious farmer who dreams of conquering new worlds as leader of a Viking raiding party. But his chieftain, Earl Haraldson (Gabriel Byrne, "In Treatment"), insists on sailing the same routes east to impoverished Baltic states and Russia.
Ragnar desires to sail west to England, a goal he begins working toward in tonight's premiere. He enlists crazed jester Floki (Gustaf Skarsgard) in building a ship. Ragnar eventually will lead successful raids, bringing back a captured monk, Athelstan (George Blagden, "Les Miserables") as his slave. This sets up some interesting conversations between the men about Athelstan's Christianity versus Ragnar's Norse gods.
Ragnar, with a haircut as crazy as his eyes are electric blue, initially seems like a menace, but over time it's clear that he's more forgiving and less cruel than Haraldson, who grows into his role as the show's primary antagonist.
On the homefront, Ragnar is helped and harmed by his impulsive brother, Rollo (Clive Standen, "Camelot"), who may have had a past relationship with Haraldson's wife, Siggy (Jessalyn Gilsig, "Glee").
From all these connections it's clear that "Vikings," at its heart, is as much a character-driven, sometimes soapy drama as "The Tudors" was. But there's a lot of barbarism to plow through.
Credit Mr. Hirst's script and Mr. Fimmel's performance for making Ragnar likable. Mr. Fimmel finds a soulful character with a keen intellect inside the savage warrior. Physically, Mr. Fimmel has transformed himself from the lithe, almost androgynous Tarzan he played on The WB in 2003 to a bearded, burly warrior.
In many respects, that physical transformation matches the maturation of scripted programming. Prime time once put a premium on beautiful people in opulent settings. And while that's still true in some quarters, "Vikings" and plenty of predecessor programs on cable represent a new direction for TV storytelling, one focused on harsh, gritty settings and morally complicated characters.
Rob Owen writes this Sunday TV column for Scripps Howard News Service. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.