It’s not easy to explain the comfort and satisfaction visited upon viewers during the violent battles and amoral raids led by a legendary eighth-century Viking named Ragnar Lothbrok. In spite of its brutality, History’s drama series “Vikings” is (for me and I’m not sure who else) one of television’s secret masochistic pleasures.
And now the show has wisely set sail from the bloody battlefields of the Sunday-night TV wars and landed its second season on Thursday nights instead, where I bid it a hearty skoal. “Vikings” exceeds expectations, so long as those expectations aren’t up in “Game of Thrones” territory. What could be a silly exercise in quasi-historical swordplay is instead an earnest, tightly told family drama.
“Vikings” has consistently lean writing and a precise sense of what kind of show it’s trying to be — manly, intelligent, tragic; sweeping yet specific. The performances by the cast, led by Travis Fimmel as the restless explorer Ragnar (who sports the original hipster undercut), are confident and controlled.
But this isn’t entirely a mash note. “Vikings” is a technical success that nevertheless lacks wider appeal, some ineffable and deeply thematic quality that could have lured the sort of episode-by-episode talk and attention that all cable dramas crave. “Vikings” gives you a lot to look at but not much to discuss.
Perhaps that’s precisely why I enjoy watching it; I don’t feel obligated to guess where the show’s story is headed or proffer my lofty theories on its hidden context or relevance. “Vikings” is about Vikings doing what Vikings do — which is neither pretty nor inspiring.
Having ascended in Season 1 to the status of earl in his territory, Ragnar has brokered an uneasy truce with two other Viking rulers (one of them, King Horik, is played by Donal Logue). They agree to team up and sail west for a raid on Northumbria (England), where the gods had favored Ragnar in a previous pillage.
A storm disorients them, and the Vikings’ longships land in the Wessex realm of King Ecbert (Linus Roache), a more worthy and less vulnerable adversary than they’ve met before.
Although Ragnar’s passions lead him to the western horizon, his heart belongs home, where his second wife (Alyssa Sutherland as the vain Princess Aslaug) has borne him a new litter of sons. His true love is still Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick), the determined warrior who dumped him, taking their elder son Bjorn and winding up in a far worse marriage. Luckily, we haven’t seen the last of her.
By this season’s second episode, “Vikings” wisely jumps ahead several years in its story line — which is bad news for the talented lad who used to play Bjorn but excellent news for actor Alexander Ludwig, who plays the strapping, all-grown-up Bjorn, who returns to Ragnar’s kingdom just when he’s needed most.
“Vikings” seems to have added more fighting and pillaging this time around — a.k.a., the guy stuff — of which it already had plenty. That’s fine, I suppose, if that’s where the ratings treasure is hidden, but I still prefer the show’s intellectual side, following Ragnar’s curiosity for the culture and monotheistic religion of the communities he’s invading. The more Ragnar gets around, the more he learns. It’s the only thing about this bleak and adventuresome saga that feels redemptive.
Sundance TV (formerly known as Sundance Channel) brings out another of its boutique limited series on Thursday night: “The Red Road,” a crime drama set in the New Jersey hills just 25 miles or so from New York City, but, indeed, a world away.
Long-simmering tensions between local law enforcement and the federally unrecognized tribe of Lenape Mountain Indians boil over during a police search for a missing NYU student, whose disappearance coincides with the menacing return of tribal member Philip Kopus (Jason Momoa), who’s been serving prison time.
At the same time, the mentally unstable wife of Walpole sheriff Harold Jensen (Martin Henderson) is involved in a hit-and-run accident, putting the sheriff in an uneasy alliance with Kopus, who offers to help him cover up the evidence of the wife’s crime in return for favors.
“The Red Road” is very much in keeping with the mood and mystique of two of Sundance’s original series last year (“Rectify” and “Top of the Lake”), but it lacks a stronger story that could persuade viewers to keep watching. The first three episodes are all hints and shadows and squandered time, while the show’s most intriguing context and premise — life in a forgotten and neglected tribe — gets lost in all the meandering. Momoa (late of “Game of Thrones,” where he played the Dothraki king) is certainly a commanding presence, but he and the rest of “The Red Road’s” capable cast seem stuck in an indie film that’s about four hours too long.
(one hour) returns Thursday at 10 p.m. on History.
(one hour; first of six episodes) premieres Thursday at 9 p.m.
on Sundance TV.