History’s ‘Vikings’ goes beyond blood and guts

One girds oneself for some serious hammer time when an opening fight scene of History’s compelling and robust new drama series, “Vikings,” delivers all the expected gore and blood spatter.

Yet, beyond its blunt-force trauma, “Vikings” (premiering at 10 p.m. Sunday night) turns out to be an adroit and even elegant surprise, simply by aping some of the basic skills of a successful cable drama.

The care shown for its dialogue and acting gives it “Sons of Anarchy’s” sense of scope, while the 1,200-year dial-back lends it a dash of “Game of Thrones” medieval mood.

And a relatively modest budget keeps “Vikings” honest, in a “Spartacus” way, as a caution for those tempted to take it too seriously.

But what I was most reminded of while watching the first five addictive episodes of “Vikings” was HBO’s much-missed “Rome.”

“Vikings,” created and written by Michael Hirst (who wrote the film “Elizabeth” and created Showtime’s “The Tudors”), isn’t that grand, but it possesses that show’s same air of confident storytelling.

It also has a Titus Pullo of sorts as its lead — that is, a conflicted antihero brute as a sympathetic protagonist — in the form of Ragnar Lothbrok, an arrogant Viking plunderer with a scientist’s curiosity about the world beyond his own.

This show’s real strength is the way it effortlessly ushers us into Ragnar’s life and carefully considers its characters, giving them a depth that transcends all the violent stuff (which is, by the way, marvelously shot).

“Vikings” is filled with an urgent, voracious, gritty and even sexy sense of the hyper-macho world it’s trying to portray. The people we’re rooting for are murderers, thieves and occasional rapists — displaying a disturbing arsenal of moral flaws that cable viewers have come to accept as de rigeur.

In a way, it’s all just another iteration of Tony Soprano, as “Vikings” emphasizes a core pride and nobility in this tribe of thugs and galoots.

We are meant to understand that Ragnar’s urge to see what lies beyond the western horizon isn’t merely about greed, nor is it about good and evil. What he’s feeling is the existential tug of history and fate.

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