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TV review: Go west, young 'Vikings'

Katheryn WinnickGabriel ByrneThe Tudors (tv program)The Beast (tv program)

Some people just won't take "no" for an answer. In the case of Ragnar Lothbrok in the new historical drama "Vikings" (9 p.m. CT March 3, History; 3 stars out of 4), that's a good thing.

In History Channel's nine-part scripted series--its first--adventurous young farmer Ragnar (Travis Fimmel) grows bored of the Vikings' plunder-and-pillage raids on the Baltics east of the Nordic homeland. He wants to travel west across the sea to plunder and pillage England, a destination his lord, Earl Haraldson (Gabriel Byrne), and many others believe is just a myth. (It is, after all, just 793 A.D. Lots of new worlds to discover!)

"You are a farmer," Earl warns him. "You should be content with your lot."

Ragnar isn't, instead wrangling his wife, the lovely and fierce shield maiden Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick), his brother Rollo (Clive Standen) and a crew to man a new kind of boat built by his eccentric pal, Floki (Gustaf Skarsgard). They set sail to west, eventually landing on the shores of Northumbria (England) where they raid a monastery and grab a bunch of gold and silver souvenirs. Ragnar, only slightly less ax-happy than his mates, saves a young monk named Athelstan (George Blagden)--only to make him a slave for the Lothbrok family.

When Ragnar and his merry band return home with their loot, the Earl is happy to take it from them, but seethes at the idea that he was proved wrong. So the cruel, vindictive leader sets out to destroy Ragnar.

This battle of wills may be the main conflict of the series--Byrne could wither a stone with his line readings--but "Vikings" really sails when Ragnar, played appealingly by Aussie Fimmel (the Chicago-filmed and set "The Beast") as a restless dreamer bound for greatness, looks west to fulfill his lust for discovery.

I just wish creator/writer Michael Hirst ("Elizabeth," "The Tudors") would spend more time fleshing out Ragnar's far-flung adventures. "Vikings" speeds through his maiden voyage west so quickly you'd think Scandinavia was just across the Channel from England.

But Hirst can tell a story, and with "Vikings" he has the luxury of taking creative license because the real Vikings never kept written records. Most of their history was told by their victims, which is why most viewers likely think "rampaging barbarians" when they hear "Vikings." (Or they think football.) The intriguing details of Viking life and culture and lush Irish scenery where the series was filmed help overcome the inconsistent accents and some clumsy, not-of-the-8th-century dialogue ("Have you got the balls to join us?").

After opening with a bloody, fantastic battle, Sunday's pilot, "Rites of Passage," lumbers to ominous ending. The good news is "Vikings" improves with each episode, slowly building its fascinating characters and discovering its ultimately absorbing tale.

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Katheryn WinnickGabriel ByrneThe Tudors (tv program)The Beast (tv program)
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