Hairy rebels ready to pillage in 'Vikings'
TODAY'S FEATURES SUNDAY'S FEATURES CRITIC'S CHOICE TODAY'S SERIES SUNDAY SERIES BY KEVIN McDONOUGH,
While networks have all but abandoned the miniseries, viewers still love them. The tearful conclusion of "Downton Abbey" was among the most watched programs in PBS history. The History Channel set ratings records with its "Hatfields & McCoys" miniseries. Multipart HBO series, from "Mildred Pierce" to "Parade's End," continue to attract Emmy notice while captivating audiences in search of literary adaptations.
The History Channel returns to the miniseries format with gusto with "Vikings" (10 p.m. Sunday, TV-14). A lavish and ambitious production, "Vikings" follows the journeys of Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel), a Norseman with a mind of his own who rebels against corrupt chieftain Earl Haraldson (Gabriel Byrne). The prevailing wisdom held that Viking raiding parties could only venture east -- toward the Baltic coast. The intrepid Ragnar joins forces with a mystical jester, Floki (Gustaf Skarsgard), to devise a long boat and a crude navigational instrument capable of sailing west and plundering the riches of then-unknown kingdoms, namely England and Ireland.
Behind every would-be chieftain stands a good woman. Katheryn Winnick ("Bones") stars as Ragnar's wife, Lagertha, the lusty local shieldmaiden who is more than a match for any man, including her hirsute husband.
Mingling the magical and factual on an epic scale, "Vikings" at times resembles a pared-down, less baffling version of HBO's "Game of Thrones." Any drama set in this mythic Nordic past is going to tiptoe right up to the border that separates the serious from silly Wagnerian overkill. This is a hairy show. Sometimes it looks like members of Metallica have teamed up with roadies for the Allman Brothers Band to form an eighth-century motorcycle gang.
That said, I was pleasantly surprised to discover just how compelling and entertaining it could be to tag along with a roughshod gang of rebels. "Vikings" fails to sugarcoat our heroes or their motivations. Their first encounter with an abbey of English monks does not end in prayer.
But, by Odin, the hammer of the gods and everything else I've gleaned from Led Zeppelin lyrics, I swear "Vikings" is good, ambitious television, another giant step forward for the History Channel in its quest to become a major player.
n Produced by the husband-and-wife team of Mark Burnett ("Survivor") and Roma Downey ("Touched by an Angel"), the 10-hour, five-part miniseries "The Bible" (8 p.m. Sunday, History) is organized into vignettes that are based on some of the best-known parts of the Old and New Testaments. Unfortunately, "Bible" consists of a lot of voice-overs accompanied by stagey re-enactments, linked by portentous shots of sky and sand. It never really flows.
It also puts a great emphasis on ultra-violence done in a heavy-handed CGI fashion, reminiscent of "Spartacus" or "300." The angels that Lot encounters in the doomed city of Sodom are more like martial killing machines than heavenly agents. Young Moses is so touched-up by computer graphics I was half expecting him to walk through the portal from "Stargate" (8 p.m. Sunday, Encore).
This highly touted miniseries accomplishes the near impossible. It makes the Bible boring.
n The worst dramas are the ones that want to have it both ways. The entire "Twilight" franchise operates on the absurd and phony notion that vampires can be "nice." Melissa Rosenberg, a screenwriter for those dreadful movies, is a creative force behind "Red Widow" (9 p.m. Sunday, ABC, TV-14).
"Widow" concerns soccer mom Marta (Radha Mitchell), whose family connections to San Francisco's Bratva, or Russian mafia, come to the fore after the murder of her husband, a seemingly pleasant fellow who dabbled in the marijuana trade.
The ambiance of the Russian culture is thinly drawn and Marta is somewhat less than lovable. She's lived off her mob connections her whole life, but seems to want out. Just why any viewer would invest time in her story is beyond me. "Widow" does, however, include pleasant Northern California scenery.
n The six-part documentary series "Blackboard Wars" (9 p.m. today, OWN) follows a new superintendent, principal and faculty as they try to turn around the worst-performing high school in New Orleans.
The students at John McDonogh High School are used to gun violence, drug dealing, rampant promiscuity, homelessness and pregnancy. Education maverick Steve Barr and principal Marvin Thompson set out to change a school's culture of failure and their students' low expectations, while fighting local community activists who fear and resent any outsiders.
n After a handsome author (Cameron Mathison) and his wife (Annie Wersching) discover that they cannot conceive, they decide to allow his faithful assistant (Amy Scott) to bear their child in the 2013 shocker "The Surrogate" (8 p.m. today, Lifetime, TV-14). What are the chances that she turns out to be a homicidal maniac?
Cora hunts for Rumpelstiltskin's booty on "Once Upon a Time" (8 p.m., ABC, r, TV-PG).
A young police commissioner's rapid rise is explained in flashbacks on "Golden Boy" (9 p.m., CBS, r, TV-14).
Hardy's narrow escape on "The Following" (9 p.m., Fox, r, TV-14).
An inventor's death appears linked to a tycoon's ambition on "Ripper Street" (9 p.m., BBC America, TV-14).
Richard Gere, John Malkovich, Saoirse Ronan and Taylor Swift appear on "The Graham Norton Show" (10:15 p.m., BBC America, TV-14).
Kevin Hart hosts "Saturday Night Live" (11:30 p.m., NBC, TV-14), featuring musical guest Macklemore and Ryan Lewis.
Scheduled on "60 Minutes" (7 p.m., CBS): tainted injections and China's overheated real estate market.
Mary Margaret vows to keep an enchanted dagger well hidden on "Once Upon a Time" (8 p.m., ABC, TV-PG).
The Justice Department remains coy about Eli's case on "The Good Wife" (9 p.m., CBS, TV-14).
As the History Channel plays more like a network, NBC imitates a very minor cable player, trotting out the widely loathed Donald Trump and a gaggle of desperate has-beens for "All-Star Celebrity Apprentice" (9 p.m., TV-PG).
Carol Kane ("Taxi") guest-stars as a woman Adam meets at Alcoholics Anonymous on "Girls" (9 p.m., HBO, TV-MA).
Amy braces for the repercussions from her expose on "Enlightened" (9:30 p.m., HBO, TV-MA).
Alicia Keys appears on "Oprah's Master Class" (10 p.m., OWN).
Long before refashioning himself as a sophisticate and a contributor to the New Yorker, Steve Martin starred in the silly 1979 comedy "The Jerk" (9:35 p.m. today, Encore).
McGarrett's sister is busted on "Hawaii Five-0" (8 p.m., CBS, r, TV-14) ... "American Ninja Warrior" (8 p.m., NBC, TV-PG) ... Two helpings of "Cops" (8 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., r, Fox, TV-PG) ... Dawson's brother needs help on "Chicago Fire" (9 p.m., NBC, r, TV-14) ... "20/20" (9 p.m., ABC) ... "48 Hours" (10 p.m., CBS) ... "Saturday Night Live" (10 p.m., NBC, r, TV-14).
A trip to New Zealand on "The Amazing Race" (8 p.m., CBS, TV-PG) ... "Dateline NBC" (8 p.m.) ... Grandpa's legend revealed on "The Simpsons" (8 p.m., Fox, TV-PG) ... Rallo's vanity on "The Cleveland Show" (8:30 p.m., Fox, TV-14).
Peter wields media influence on "Family Guy" (9 p.m., Fox, r, TV-14) ... Gene makes a friend on "Bob's Burgers" (9:30 p.m., Fox, TV-PG) ... A slain heiress is discovered entombed in her retreat on "The Mentalist" (10 p.m., CBS, TV-14).