By John Mitchell
Updated April 07, 2013 at 01:00 PM EDT
Credit: Jonathan Hession / The History Channel
  • TV Show
  • History

There are plenty of people out there who got sucked into the epic fantasy world of Game of Thrones on Blu-ray and DVD who are feeling a little blue with the show’s third season now airing on HBO, a channel not every Thrones fan has. It’s no secret that premium cable packages can be pretty pricy. So until season three hits stores next year, accessing the channel’s currently airing programming legally is pretty difficult.

While you wait, you could beg one of your friends to invite you over for a Thrones marathon or read the excellent books on which the series is based … or you could dive straight into a different swords and wars epic to tide yourself over. On History, Vikings stalk the vast northern landscapes instead of White Walkers and Wildlings, and we are hooked on their tales of raids, secrets, love, battle, and betrayal. You know, all the things you love about Thrones.

(The first five episodes are available on both History’s website and Hulu for your binging pleasure.)

Going in, you should know that Vikings is based loosely on Norse legends about real-life Viking Ragnar Lodbrok, played here by Travis Fimmel. The series will ultimately explore how Lodbrok rose to become King of the Viking tribes. So far, it’s dealt mostly with his efforts to expand the Viking raids into the unexplored South West, all the way to untouched England, putting him at odds with a local ruler, Earl Haraldson (Gabriel Byrne).

He is supported by his loving wife, the shieldmaiden Lagertha (a perfect Katheryn Winnick), bristly brother Rollo (Clive Standen), and Athelstan, an Anglo-Saxon monk captured during Ragnar’s first raid in England, played by George Blagden, with whom he has formed a unique friendship.

Like Thrones, there are plenty of nods to the gods as well as a heaping helping of royal conniving courtesy of Haraldson and his wife, Siggy. Next to Byrne, Siggy is played by the show’s most recognizable face, a curiously cast-but-effective Jessalyn Gilsig, best known as Will Schuester’s ex wife Terri on Glee.

Vikings operates in a world with far fewer characters than Thrones and no magic, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty going on. It’s rich with back stories and subplots: Rollo has a thing for Lagertha, the Earl’s sons were killed but we don’t know by who (yet), Siggy defied her husband to try to save Rollo from the Earl’s wrath, Ragnar is seeking revenge after being badly injured in a sneak attack. And Ragnar’s relationships with the other characters, especially Lagertha, Athelstan, and Rollo, are complex but straightforward in a way that’s easier to follow than those going on in the Seven Kingdoms.

The show even titillates with some basic cable-boundary-pushing, Thrones-esque violence and sex.

History has not skimped on the production either; this show is beautiful to look at. Filmed in Ireland on period sets, lavish attention has been paid to historical detail, which should come as no surprise – the show was created by Michael Hirst, who also wrote the bulk of the first season. Hirst also created Showtime’s The Tudors and wrote the acclaimed Cate Blanchett film Elizabeth. Top-shelf historical fiction is his bread and butter.

Vikings, History’s first-ever scripted series, has proven a strong performer in the ratings, earning a second-season order mid-way through its season one run. But so far it’s had a record-setting miniseries (The Bible) as its lead-in. Tonight’s episode will be the show’s first that has to truly stand alone.

So if you are a Thrones fan feeling left out of the conversation and in need of a fix, consider flipping the dial to History and checking out Vikings. We don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Follow John on Twitter: @JohnMitchell83

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  • History