'Vikings' review: History turns to fiction

David Pearse as Svein stands behind Gabriel Byrne David Pearse as Svein stands behind Gabriel Byrne as Earl Haraldson as they learn about the joureny of Travis Fimmel as Ragnar Lothbrok in the History series "Vikings." Photo Credit: MCT HANDOUT

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REVIEW

THE SHOW "Vikings"

WHEN | WHERE Begins Sunday at 10 p.m. on History

WHAT IT'S ABOUT As the cold mists shroud their lands, there is one Viking, Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel, "Tarzan," "The Beast"), who has grown tired of the same old plunder-and-pillage raids on lands to the east. He's looking west, across the seas. Surely there is a way to cross them...

But his lord, the cruel, vindictive Earl Haraldson (Gabriel Byrne), quite literally wants to keep him down on the farm: "You are a farmer. You should be content with your lot." But Ragnar consults his wife, Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick), enlists his brother Rollo (Clive Standen) for a great voyage, then hires the eccentric Floki (Gustaf SkarsgÄrd) to build a boat.

Watch out, England. The bad boys are coming. This is, by the way, History's first fiction series, produced by Michael Hirst, ("Elizabeth: The Golden Age").

MY SAY "Vikings" should be a hit for History, although it's not immediately apparent why. By Hirst's (Showtime's "The Tudors") and even History's (the raucous, ridiculous "Hatfields & McCoys") standards, this all feels initially restrained, even tame. Beyond some opening fight scenes that appear to have borrowed some blood splatter special effects from "Spartacus," "Vikings" quickly settles into a fairly routine sword-and-sandal epic narrative that revolves around a sociopath overlord and the subjects who dare to challenge his authority. But it gets better.

Hirst knows how to tell a story and History knows how to spend money (a reported $40 million on this nine-parter), and a reasonably absorbing tale slowly unfolds. How historically accurate is this? Beats me, and probably beats History, too. Liberties have generously been taken, and the Vikings have no one but themselves to blame if they come out looking bad here -- they were too busy burning and pillaging to leave a written record.

There are a few intriguing didactic touches, such as a sundial that helps to guide the outlaws westward, but not enough of them. History has said it wants this to appeal mostly to young guys who are gamers (seriously). No need to burden them with too many facts.

BOTTOM LINE Starts slow, gets better, and very nice to look at (shot mostly in Ireland).

GRADE B

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