History (Channel) further follows the scripts by filling Sundays with Vikings and The Bible
03/01/13 10:01 AM
By ED BARK
Still flush with the huge success of Hatfields & McCoys, History (Channel) doubles down Sunday night with a pair of scripted miniseries sharing common traits of violence and spirituality.
It's hard to put a good book down. Or in this case, the Good Book. But Vikings (9 to 10 p.m. central for the next 9 Sundays) turns out to be far superior to The Bible (7 to 9 p.m. central for the next five Sundays).
Vikings enthrallingly captures the world of Norsemen and oarsmen, circa 793 in the Eastern Baltic but soon heading West to England. It's beautifully shot while also being thoroughly grimy -- as it should be. But best of all, the storytelling is bracingly sure-footed, with young, advenure-craving family man Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel) pitted against the power-mongering Earl Haraldson (Gabriel Byrne).
A decade ago, Fimmel found himself stuck in the now defunct WB network's Tarzan series, whose mention still vexes him. And back in 1985, Byrne played the flip-side of his Vikings character as the star of the CBS miniseries Christopher Columbus.
Byrne since has enjoyed a very gainful career in esteemed films (Miller's Crossing, The Usual Suspects) and TV series (HBO's In Treatment). Fimmel has slogged through a film and TV junkyard since Tarzan, but at last may have landed the big one.
His Ragnar has piercing eyes, and the hair and beard of a wrestling villain. He also thoroughly enjoys participating in the yearly summer raids sanctioned by Earl Haraldson. Blood and plunder are the constants, but Ragnar yearns for a change of pace. So he commissions his odd but accomplished friend Floki (Gustaf Skarsgard) to build a worthy ship capable of sailing long distances to the mysterious West. The near-magical navigation tools will be a sun board and a sun stone, both of which are very early forms of MapQuest.
Ragnar enlists his not always honorable brother Rollo (Clive Standen) to join him. Together they clandestinely round up a crew to make the taboo trip. Back on the farm, Ragnar's comely warrior wife Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick) begs to join him. In Episode 2 (the first five were sent for review), they have a rousing, rough-and-tumble fight in which she hopes to show him who's boss. But not this time. She's left home with their coming-of-age son and younger daughter.
The initial shots of the Viking ship at sea are breathtaking. This is no cheap-looking production. On the contrary, the History network has executive producer Michael Hirst at the throttle. And the man behind Elizabeth and Showtime's The Tudors knows how to put on a splendorous Old World drama.
The Vikings are pagan believers in Thor, Odin and the like. So they're mystified by the gentle, unarmed monks whose richly appointed monastery they raid upon first landing on the outskirts of England. "They are like babies," says Ragnar, who has taken a young monk named Athelstan (George Blagden) back home to be his slave. This is where the religious debate begins and continues periodically through the first five episodes.
Vikings positions Ragnar as its good guy. And he is to a degree when pitted against the despotic Earl Haraldson and his equally rotten wife, Siggy (Jessalyn Gilsig). But Ragnar at base level is a murderous thief, as are all the Vikings. Because, well, that's what they do -- methodically and without remorse. Killing defenseless priests and monks is all part of a day's work when treasure's to be had. Later, though, Ragnar and wife Lagertha are thoughtful enough to invite monk Athelstan to join them in a threesome. This may be a miniseries first -- broadcast or cable. Even if the invitation is declined.
Violence is plentiful in Vikings. But unlike Starz's Spartacus series, the carnage is never splashed across the screen. Cameras instead instead look away during beheadings or torture. And the multiple fatalities in fight scenes are seldom as gruesome as they could be. Blood-streaked, filthy faces convincingly get the message across after battles are waged.
Some of the dialogue can be a bit contemporary. As when Rollo asks his brother's pre-teen son, "Where are your parents?"
"They're having sex," he replies.
Recruiting shipmates later on, Ragnar asks bluntly, "Have you got the balls to join us?" But at least no one says "Far out."
Vikings is yet another epic example of what the shrinking Big Four broadcast networks just aren't doing anymore. It's now left to others to mount captivating, money-on-the-screen trips to other times and places. Viewers will get an eyeful with Vikings, a thoroughly involving tale of betrayals, reprisals and bloodlust.
Back in the mid- to late 1990s, the TNT network mounted an ambitious series of Old Testament Bible tales spotlighting Abraham, Moses, Jacob, Joseph, David, Jeremiah, Samson, Delilah and others.
Stars in lead roles included Richard Harris, Ben Kingsley, Lesley Ann Warren, Martin Landau, Dennis Hopper, Diana Rigg, Leonard Nimoy, F. Murray Abraham and Oliver Reed.
The Bible, produced by reality maestro Mark Burnett (The Apprentice, Survivor, The Voice, Shark Tank), comes off as thoroughly cut-rate in comparison. Beginning with a brief glimpse of Noah in his Ark before moving to the story of Abraham, it's over-cooked and sometimes really half-baked. As when one of God's angels, played by an Asian actor, twirls two swords Ninja-style to dispatch some bad guys while fire bolts rain down on Sodom.
Save for Burnett's wife, Roma Downey (as Mary in later episodes), viewers are unlikely to recognize any of the "acclaimed UK-based actors" striding through The Bible. The guy playing Abraham, Gary Oliver, is a real scenery-chewer. "Trust in God!" he bellows in Jon Lovitz's "Master Thespian" fashion as the story moves rapidly through the travails of the ancient sacrificer and his wife, Sarah.
Narrated by Keith David, a familiar voice to Ken Burns devotees, The Bible "endeavors to stay true to the spirit of the book," according to an opening advisory. In that respect, Burnett at least doesn't resort to having pirates attack Noah's Ark (as NBC did in a silly 1999 miniseries). Nor does Jesus go to outer space with the devil (as He did in CBS' 2000 Jesus miniseries while being tempted in the dessert).
Sunday night's second hour re-tells the very oft-told story of how Moses freed the Israelites from centuries of slavery by the Egyptians. Pharoah gets a jagged facial scar this time around, the product of a teen boy fight with his half-brother. He's also chubby and very redundant while the actor playing Moses at times looks a lot like William H. Macy's disheveled lead character in Showtime's Shameless. Compared to Charlton Heston, he otherwise makes no impression at all.
Pharoah comes off as a laughable raging bull who also gets stuck with the line, "You always were a fighter, Moses. But you never knew when you were beaten."
The resultant fabled parting of the Red Sea is strictly pedestrian from a special effects standpoint. Maybe these stories are just too well-known at this point. They've certainly been better told on film.
The bulk of Jesus' story begins in Episode 7, with Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado very pretty looking in the early going. But he emotes to fairly good effect during the Garden of Gethsemane segment, in which he begs, "Father, take this from me. Spare me."
Episode 8 ends just before the torture and crucifixion of Jesus begin. And that portion of The Bible wasn't made available for review.
But Sunday night's previews of coming attractions -- both at the beginning and the end -- are long and detailed enough to basically give viewers the entire series in a nutshell. Not that most adults aren't already well-versed.
The Bible has the misfortune of looking cheap in comparison to the visual feast provided by the Vikings. And the acting isn't nearly strong enough to overcome this.
Producer Burnett's first fully scripted series -- his 2004 Commando Nanny for The WB never made it to the air -- provides strong evidence that he should resume doing what no one else does better. "Reality" series are his forte. The Bible is Old and New Testament to that.