Kings was an awkward alternate universe, gone too soon

Kings was an awkward alternate universe, gone too soon

Some TV shows never even make it past the first season. Maybe a series lacked the ratings to match its artistic accomplishments, or maybe it floundered its way into the network crosshairs, but it’s time to look at one-season series outside the immediate context of ratings and renewals. One-Season Wonders, Weirdos, And Wannabes considers the merits of these short-lived shows.

And Saul cast the javelin; for he said, I will smite David even to the wall with it.
— 1 Samuel 18:11
 

Hey, who wants to watch a TV series based on a Bible story? Okay, maybe not directly based—they modernize it and fill it with ruthless court intrigue, pre-marital sex, homosexuality, casual murder, and hardly any actual discussion of the Bible, but still close enough to the frame story to hobble the plot and characterization at regular intervals. 

No? Yeah, that’s how a lot of people in 2009 felt about Kings. But creator Michael Green, fresh off the smoldering wreckage of Heroes, saw potential in the idea of adapting the story of King David for a modern audience. It’s a heady concept to wrestle with, not least because the contemporary setting meant the show often treated its Biblical trappings as fantasy elements, an appeal to both religious and secular camps that struck a chord with neither. The result was unsurprisingly uneven, and the show was chopped only four episodes into its run; the remaining episodes were burned off during summer, when it was guaranteed even fewer people would pay any attention to them.

Still, it’s a mistake to discount Kings solely for stumbling with one foot in each of two worlds. If nothing else, the show makes for an interesting study of a major-network series testing the cable-drama format—from its early use of a pre-planned, 13-episode narrative to its cast—which was proof positive of the unevenly distributed bursts of genius that would become the show’s signature. And its true that the source material can hinder rather than help (and that a channel like HBO would have actually made a better home for a show that so often champed at the bit for a little blasphemy). But there are also glimpses here of subtle speculative, slick aesthetic, and convoluted intrigue now seen in shows like Awake and, perhaps most paramount, House Of Cards, which feels like a thematic successor to the most successful element of Kings: a King amid a poisonous court, and what he does to retain his power.

Since King Silas Benjamin is played by the stellar Ian McShane, what he does is usually marvelous. Bringing nuance and scenery-chewing gameness by turns, he provides a beautifully flawed center for the ensemble, as a soldier-king who’s enjoyed a long and prosperous reign but, during wartime, has lost just enough face in the public eye that he’s wary of losing his place on the throne. Simultaneously grounded and arch, he sails with equal aplomb through monologues about God and snarky arguments about grammar. As Queen Rose, Susanna Thompson meets him volley for volley. Her slightly theatrical approach highlights the Shakespearian undertones of Kings’ many personal tragedies, and lends a chilling resonance to lines like the declaration she writes and passes off as the King’s: “To war, and not lightly.” (It’s topped by the layers of meaning lurking underneath a deceptively throwaway utterance of “husband” in a later episode.)

Side by side, they lead an ensemble cast in which any actor over 30 is bound to be great. As the imprisoned prior king/truth-bomb delivery system, Brian Cox walks away with the prize for scene-stealing. However, the show also features Wes Studi as a war-hungry general; Dylan Baker as Rose’s brother, an ambitious magnate; Marlyne Barrett as the increasingly ambivalent family aide; Leslie Bibb as a scheming socialite; and an underused Eamonn Walker as Reverend Samuels, who finds himself at odds with the King one time too many. Sadly, the younger set tends to flounder. Exempt, though, is Sebastian Stan, for whom Kings was something of a proving ground. Coming from the serpentine subplots of Gossip Girl, he delivered a wrenching performance as the King’s oldest son, Jack, in line to inherit the throne, and forcibly in the closet because of it. Silas’ approach to this is as cruel as it is pragmatic—“If you were my second son, I wouldn’t care, but for a king it’s not possible… you cannot be what God made you, not if you mean to take my place.” The resulting cycle of resentment, slowly contaminating Jack’s relationships with everyone at court, is one of the show’s best ongoing conflicts. 

Yet there’s a reason the lead has been missing in all this praise of the acting. Kings stumbled out of the gate with its conception of David. The religious figure is so raucous a character that he continues to give theologians headaches: Charming but manipulative, endlessly resourceful, and without doubt an active force in his story, he seems tailor-made to be the compelling, charismatic jerk you want in the middle of a web of war, intrigue, romance, and betrayal. Instead, he’s presented as a preternaturally stalwart country boy with a simple heart and a jawline that could cut fiberglass. (The jawline comes courtesy of Christopher Egan, whose casting cemented the idea that David was going to be this show’s Clark Kent rather than its Lex Luthor.) This version of David provides a more obvious foil to the King, perhaps, but the show could never build an organic struggle between a conflicted man determined to claw greatness out of history and a young soldier who drifts between puppy love and mild surprise at the bursts of divine intervention required to keep him in play.

That’s a shame, because with a cast like this, any good writing was taken as far as possible, and when things were firing on all cylinders, the show felt closer to HBO than to network primetime. Unfortunately, characterization and plot dynamics often went in circles or hit a reset button in order to get the pieces where they needed to be for a later episode. The most egregious example might be the introduction of Leslie Bibb’s politico Katrina Ghent, who sets up a fascinating marriage of convenience with Jack, only to be dispatched offscreen a few episodes later, scuttling one of the season’s most promising subplots. It’s a waste echoed in the friendship between David and Jack, which initially has all the intensity any secretly shipping Biblical scholar could ask for, but gets routinely sidelined in the face of David’s tepid heterosexual romance with Michelle (Allison Miller) and Jack’s far more interesting struggles with his father. Once or twice Jack and David find themselves at loggerheads that require them to be utterly unfamiliar to each other in order for the plot to proceed. This tendency to line them up and shoot them down was even more frustrating because it felt the series was trying to save things for an amazing season two that never materialized.

But even when the writing stalls out, Kings still looks good. The smooth, almost-but-not-quite aesthetics of its world are a smart treatment of its speculative premise. Aside from the crown of butterflies that serves as God’s mark of favor and provides one of the most striking images of the pilot, the deftest portrait of an alternate universe is sketched in how little is really altered. The capital city of Shiloh is a sidelong New York, in which Columbus Circle is a tribute to a king, a sleek glass-walled Lincoln Center his audience chamber, and the Public Library his palace—a subtle re-contextualizing of landmarks just recognizable enough to feel uncanny, which is just what you want from your alternate universes. 

And when well-deployed, the world-building is subtle and evocative: The family butterfly sigil that appears on flags, war machines, and TV studios slowly takes on the oppressive ubiquity of a dystopia without ever saying as much. (In a bid to get NYC to tune in, NBC papered the subways with orange-and-white encouragement to enlist in the war against Gath, brought to you by the King of Gilboa.) Thanks to some canny direction from veteran TV directors Ed Bianchi, Akiva Goldsman, and Francis Lawrence and a beautifully moody score from Trevor Morris, every episode feels cinematic in a way that opens the scope of the world from fields of battle to formal place settings. (Lawrence would go on to direct The Hunger Games: Catching Fire with similar dystopian zeal.)

Occasionally things tilt more overtly to the fantastic, which tends to be successful in inverse proportion to the effectiveness of the real-world dynamics in play. When there is enough delicious court scheming and soul-searching to fill an episode, all is well; when the specter of Death visits the King in “The Sabbath Queen,” the show has a character throw a temper tantrum, turning off the grid citywide just to get the King in the dark alone. Death herself, however, is sharply done: Human-seeming until she isn’t, her otherworldly presence determined more by mood and a nicely creepy turn by Saffron Burrows than by special effects (though the unnaturally mouthed silent scream does the trick). She’s one of the show’s most intense forays into the supernatural, and feels duly mythic without any overt references to religious canon. It’s just as well; whenever God gets an actual name-drop, it feels more like an anvil than a crown of butterflies.

It’s worth noting, though, that some of the more thudding beats might have a complicated history. The show’s very tight advertising ties with Liberty Mutual Insurance never reached Bing levels of obvious encroachment, but Forbes took note of the level of creative control the company had over the show—including the right to ask for script changes. Even without the ads popping up at every commercial, you might take note of the several times throughout the series that characters talk about the importance of personal responsibility in terms that are awfully after-school special for a group of people that’s up to as many shenanigans as this crew is.

Liberty Mutual or not, the show is in its element, and often at its best, when asking hard questions about ideological tenets in conflict with each other—compassion versus ruthlessness when trying to end disputes, justice versus friendship in maintaining alliances, and the relative merits of a reputation for kindness versus a reputation of someone who will do what it takes to keep power. Ironically, the show’s mandate to include God as a certainty only increases the potential for intrigue, particularly in the eyes of its two kings: What’s harder to resist than a call from a definite higher power that wants you to be in charge? Only the call from a definite higher power to fight for your throne. Sadly, the God of Kings never quite achieved that level of chilling omniscience, because as it turns out, someone using a concrete God as a symbol for their own ends looks an awful lot like everyone else on TV who invokes God for their own ends. Without ever managing to integrate the overtly religious aspects of the premise, God is merely a supporting player who tended to get stuck halfway between lip service and Wonderfalls; awkward lies the head that wears a crown.

In the third episode of the series, David’s worried mother bemoans the idea of those who chase greatness: “They die old and unhappy, or young and unfinished.” Kings is one of the latter. It stems from a concept that was doomed to fail, and slowly deflates under the pressure to court a religious audience that was never going to warm up to the show. Still, it’s executed with enough polish and skill that it’s less a television curiosity than it is a small-scale tragedy of its own.

Wonder, weirdo, or wannabe? Weirdo.

Next time: Phil Dyess-Nugent takes us back to CBS’ brief attempt to do a cable-style show with Swingtown.

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