Yes, sorry, this is two “rant about TV shows” blog posts in a row, but this is bugging me. My problems with Almost Human last week were mostly based on the writers not trying very hard to make up a new, imaginary world, but my problem with the History Channel show Vikings is in some ways opposite, and far more damning: the world they’re portraying is not new or imaginary, but they’re getting it wrong ON PURPOSE.
Historical fiction is hard—it’s far away the genre I read most often, but it’s not something I’ve ever written, or am likely to write, because the level of research you have to put into it is insane. Most of us have a pretty good idea of what we think a viking is, but how many of you could describe, right off the top of your head, an authentic viking meal? Outfit? System of government? How much do you really know about their economics, their level of technology, or their day-to-day lives? The image we have of vikings is a very modern, romanticized one, and if you’re going to write a book or make a show about them you need to know these things. And yes, you can be forgiven for some inaccuracies, because a lot of what we know about the vikings is shaky at best—they kept no real written records, and most of what’s recorded about them was written a few hundred years after the fact, and usually by someone the vikings had attacked. These kinds of accounts are inherently, purposefully biased. If you get something wrong because of that, well, that’s okay. We understand.
What bugs me, though—and it really, really bugs me—is this quote from Michael Hirst, the creator of the show, in an interview with the NY Times: “We want people to watch it. A historical account of the vikings would reach hundreds, occasionally thousands, of people. Here we’ve got to reach millions.” Let me say that again just to let it sink in: the creator of the show has deliberately chosen to get his facts wrong, because he believes that getting them right would turn people away. You see, there are many, many facts about viking culture, and the cultures they raided, that are NOT lost in history, that are verified by well-known evidence, and this guy has apparently decided to screw that crap because historical accuracy would ruin his show. This, I assume, is why his vikings live in frame houses instead of viking longhouses—a type of house so synonymous with vikings that they’re in the houses’ name. No one would ever watch a show about people who live in longhouses! Don’t be stupid! He had to put them in frame houses because he wants to reach millions of people, and that takes some sacrifices.
What else has he sacrificed in the name of viewership? Everything we know about viking government, for one thing. Vikings lived in a very democratic society: one man was in charge, but only because the rest of the men trusted him to lead them successfully, and if he failed in his job, they stopped following him and followed someone else. The vikings in the tv show live in some kind of feudal autocracy, beholden to an Earl (played, I must admit, with deliciously slimy aplomb by Gabriel Byrne) who orders them around and screws everything up and contributes nothing valuable to their society. Real vikings would throw that guy out on his ear—if he doesn’t lead the raids, he doesn’t get to lead anywhere else—but the tv vikings kowtow just like, well, like the feudal English warriors that the writers are presumably more familiar with. This error, honestly, I don’t suspect is a fault of their research so much as their storytelling: we’re so culturally accustomed to stories about oppressive rulers, especially in the last few years, that it was simply easier/flashier/more topical to write a show about one man fighting back against a tyrannical government. They could have put in the time and effort to come up with an equally compelling story about egalitarian viking politics, but they didn’t want to, and as a fellow storyteller I can kind of see that—it’s lazy, but it’s a good story, and that counts for a lot. But it drives me up the wall to hear them excuse their laziness by saying it’s the only way to make people watch. The hell it is. Don’t blame us because you couldn’t be bothered to come up with an authentic viking story for your viking tv show—that’s all on you. Write a good story and we’ll be there for it.
The list of historical inaccuracies goes on and on. They depict what is considered to be the start of the “Viking Age,” kicked off by an attack on Lindisfarne (accurate!), using advanced navigational tools (accurate!), but they bury it in a story about how that’s the first time the vikings ever discovered the saxon islands existed (woefully inaccurate by several centuries!). When the vikings pillage the Lindisfarne monastery (accurate!), they meet a monk who speaks norse (plausible! But completely nonsensical in their proposed world where the norse and the saxons didn’t know about each other!); the monk tells them his land is called England (inaccurate by almost a hundred years!); they run afoul of the local king named Aelle (inaccurate by about seventy years!); they fight Aelle’s men in a shield wall (accurate!), but rely on archers instead of spears and axes for most of their attacks (inaccurate and ridiculous!). At this period of history (approximately 793 AD, given what we know about Lindisfarne), the kingdom that would eventually become England was still split into four mini-kingdoms, and the one the vikings hit first was called Northumbria, and it was not nearly as clean or as advanced or as unilaterally Christian as the show depicts it. The process that united these kingdoms began with Alfred the Great, who is allegedly slated to appear in season two of the show despite the fact that he wasn’t even born until 849, and wasn’t king until 871, and that the entire purpose of his rule was to create England which their version of the show has already done, and that he still didn’t manage to create it until his grandson Athelstan finally united the four kingdoms under a single ruler in 924. What are they going to have Alfred do in 793? Make up some kind of crisis to separate the kingdoms, so he can reforge them again? The more they try to conflate these different elements of history, the more inaccurate they’re going to get.
And you know what? It all comes back to Michael Hirst’s lame excuse. They could tell an accurate story if they wanted to: they could depict the Vikings, and the Northumbrians, and the clothes and the buildings and the rulers and everything else, completely correctly if they wanted. It would not be any harder or more expensive than the show they’re currently making. And they’ve chosen not to do that, and that’s their choice, but to blame it on the viewership just gets me so mad. What kind of audience is he imagining that would refuse to watch a show because they call it Northumbria instead of England? What’s so amazing about his laughable shield wall tactics that’s going to expand their audience from thousands to millions? Why should we trust a show from a man with so little faith in real history he thinks he has to screw it up on purpose or no one will watch?
I complained about this on twitter, and many of you agreed, and many of you said “I don’t care, that show’s awesome.” And you know what? The show is awesome, and I’m enjoying it, and even though I sit there and point out all the inaccuracies to my wife while we watch it (a habit I get from my Dad, who does the same with World War II movies), I will probably keep watching it. But my plea to the universe, or at least to the makers of TV shows, is the same now as it was with Almost Human: yes, your show is fun, and yes, it’s entertaining, but can’t it also be good? Can’t you get your science/history/laws/physics/whatever right? Do I really have to ignore hundreds of years of well-known history just to enjoy your show?
Can’t our entertainment be awesome AND great? Why should we settle for less?