This past Sunday, The History Channel, making it’s entry into the contest to be the most talked about network, debuted two new series. As has become apparent over the last few years, Cable, and not just the premium channels such as HBO and Showtime, is where the best scripted television shows are found. It seems that every month the FX channel has a new show that is a must watch, the recent show The Americans and the long running series Justified, being prime examples.
The first debut Sunday night was episode one of the ten hour miniseries The Bible. Created by Mark Burnett of Survivor fame and his wife Roma Downey, star of the religiously themed Touched By An Angel, the series was given a substantial budget by the network, twenty-two million for a ten hour series. What has been produced is a scripted production of some of the most famous stories in the Bible. With five stories each from the Old and New Testaments what makes this show work well is that each story is given a full hour to be told. Watching the first episode I was struck by how beautifully filmed and produced this series is. Criticism has been leveled at the show thus far because, it is felt by some, that the representations of the stories chosen are nothing new, there is no new take on them as it were. For me, I think that argument does not hold up. The series hopes to reach as wide an audience as possible, it does not seek to create new history, rather it is a glossy production of stories in The Bible that we all are familiar with.
Sunday’s episode featured two stories from The Old Testament. In the Beginning centers on the life of Abraham while Exodus features Moses and his attempts to bring the people of Abraham out of bondage to Pharaoh and the Egyptians. The good news for The History Channel is that, according to the ratings, the debut was a massive success. Sunday’s debut was the highest rated show on television, besting anything the major networks had on, including even AMC’s The Walking Dead. Clearly there is a market for a well done production of this type.
Premiering directly after The Bible in it’s ten o’clock time slot Vikings is The History Channel’s version of Game of Thrones. The main character is Ragnar Lodbrook, a self described farmer who lives under the power of his Earl, Jaral Handerson, played by Gabriel Byrne.
Ragnar, like all farmers, is called to a yearly meeting at the Earl’s domain to discuss the upcoming season of raids in which they all will be expected to take part. Plundering the Baltic coasts is part of their duty to The Earl. Unlike the others however, Ragnar has an explorer’s eye. Having heard tales and legends of lands to the west he seeks to attempt to find out if they are true. After being shown a discovery of a medieval times sundial, which acts as a crude compass, he feels that he can navigate his ship and stay the course to the west when he gets his boat out into the wide waters. Handarlson however wants no part of this. To him the stories are just legends and he wants none of his ships put at risk.
In being introduced to Ragmar and his family we see that even in the seventh century husbands had to find ways to tell their wives that they loved them, that sons want to be like their fathers, and creativity is not always welcomed. Viking justice is meted out at the meeting that Ragmar attends. Interesting is the trial of a man accused of murder. While protesting his innocence he, once convicted, is allowed to choose his mode of death and makes efforts to ” die well without fear to atone for his sins.” When, after his beheading, the Earl proclaims a curse on him and states his desire for the convicted man to never enter Valhalla (one supposes a Viking version of heaven) Ragmar, shocked at this, resolves further to pursue his dreams despite the objection of the leader.
While gory and violent, much of this is campy and rote, far from scary. Swords and pikes are not to me the same kind of violence as guns and machine guns, perhaps it is because one cannot imagine them being used today. Sex and nudity, in comparison to Game of Thrones, is minimal. I feared early on that the filming would all be dark, dreary, and sepia toned but thankfully the sun does come out and we are treated to visions of green land and blue seas. In the coming weeks one supposes that Ragmar will begin his quest to go where he has been told not to and will have to deal with the ramifications of whatever he discovers.
I will be watching and, if the ratings hold, The History Channel may well find it’s audience continuing to grow. Based on what I saw Sunday night both of these shows deserve the viewers they have thus far received and will continue to gain.