Oh, you crazy Viking kid.
So imagine: You're an adventurous young Viking, tired of raiding the same old Baltic villages where the people are just as poor as you are. You want to sail west, to a richer land you've heard tell of called "England," but your mean boss says, "No, too risky, not interested."
What do you do? You build a new kind of sturdier, ocean-going ship, buy a cool new navigational tool and gather some buddies. Then you sail away, finding England and making yourself a hero to your people - who become a scourge to much of Western Europe for the next hundred years.
That "scourge" part is why the Vikings, with the general exception of Thor, don't get to play hero very often. But they do Sunday in History's first scripted series -- and they do so with surprising, ax-swinging elan. If you're not too picky about historical accuracy, and not too put off by cheap-looking computer effects, you'll find much to enjoy in this entertaining adventure, built on a solid hero's-quest structure and bolstered by a terrifically engaging performance from Travis Fimmel as the hero-at-hand.
Best known in America for a short WB stint as Tarzan, Fimmel is on firmer star footing here as Ragnar Lothbrok, a bright farmer with an itch for exploration. He's supported in his Horace Greeley-ish quest to head west by his shield-maiden wife (Katheryn Winnick, as convincing a warrior as Fimmel) and his roguish brother (Clive Standen). Unfortunately, he's opposed by the local Viking leader (Gabriel Byrne) and his manipulative wife (Glee's Jessalyn Gilsig, who seems to be specializing in unlikable characters).
Luckily, Ragnar knows an expert boat-builder, played by Alexander Skarsgard's brother Gustaf. Off they head for England - where they slaughter a monastery full of helpless monks. So yes, there is that.
For most series, killing innocents would be a considerable stumbling block. But the show's creator, Michael Hirst (The Tudors), does an excellent job of showing us the Vikings on their own terms while keeping Ragnar sympathetic. He kills, but he does so less indiscriminately than his friends, as when he insists on taking one monk home (George Blagden) as a hostage.
In between the stabbings, sailings and cable-required sexual escapades, Vikings throws in some lessons in Scandinavian culture, from the workings of the legal system to their method of ship-building. Considering the carefree approach Hirst took to both history and the laws of science with The Tudors' perpetually young Henry VIII, you'd be well advised not to let your children use Vikings as the basis for a school report. But the fun facts do add another layer of interest to the show.
Oh, and because History is a basic-cable channel, you can feel safer letting your older children watch, knowing you won't find the ludicrous gore of Spartacus or the gratuitous nudity of Game of Thrones.
You also, of course, won't find Game's production values, dramatic intensity or across-the-board level of excellence. Byrne and Gilsig's stock-issue villains slow the story's momentum whenever they appear, as do the hints of Lothbrok family troubles to come. But all Fimmel has to do is flash that sly smile he uses to let us know Ragnar is the smartest Viking in town, and the story picks back up.