When production of Kings was announced a few months back, I got irrationally excited. Not only did it promise to be a showcase for the gifted Ian McShane, generally ill-used since his unforgettable turn in Deadwood, but its premise is the sort of batshit-crazy idea that can make for appealing television. Essentially a fantastic modern-day retelling of the story of David and King Saul – with McShane in the role of Saul – Kings has potential coming off it in waves. Why? Well, McShane’s prodigious talents aside, David is one of the most intriguing characters in the Bible, a morally compromised figure whose wisdom and grace was offset by terrible ambition and murderous abuse of power, and who only got away with his often reprehensible behavior because God happened to like him. What’s more, his relationship with King Saul was, to put it mildly, dysfunctional. The power-mad Saul, threatened by the young and handsome David, went from being a respected servant of Jehovah to a near-psychopath who would do anything to rid himself of the man he once thought of as a son.
Then again, as promising as the series seemed because of its primary actor and source material, there were plenty of ways to fuck it up. For one thing, Kings’ status as a network show would rob him of the delicate range of expression McShane displayed as Al Swearengen. For another, the creative team – largely creator Michael Green along with Francis Lawrence and Erik Oleson – have an awfully spotty record, having worked on ambitious but flawed projects like Jack & Bobby, well-meaning messes like Heroes, and dismal fare like Everwood. And while McShane alone, especially in a role as meaty as King Saul, is reason enough to give the show a chance – along with some promising names lower in the credits, like the amazing return of Macauly Culkin – the romantic leads are played by bland Australian Christopher Egan and unknown quality Allison Miller. The trailers, in addition, were pretty terrible, making what should be a crazed Biblical drama look like a bad WB teen soap.
So, which way will the show go? Will it be an engagingly strange retelling of one of the Bible’s most notoriously weird relationships, or will it just be a tarted-up rich-kid romance? Green has said he intends to make the story as true to the Bible as possible, while staying in the framework of a soap opera and tailoring it to network demands. Let’s you and me watch the two-hour pilot and find out together.
The pilot starts out with popular King Silas Benjamin (so much for Saul) meeting with his high council to plan a speech before his subjects. The occasion is the full restoration of the capital city of Shiloh, in what appears to be a fictionalized America known as Gilboa -- lower Manhattan reimagined as a latter-day technocracy ruled by an absolute monarch. Early on, we see one of the things that I liked the most about Kings -- it has a real sense of religious wonder and revelation, but never comes across as preachy or moralistic in the way that most shows along the lines of Seventh Heaven always go for. It's religious in a Biblical sense; King Silas is a man to whom God is a daily presence in his life, not a remote abstraction. This point of view isn't always popular with his advisors; his high priest, played beautifully by Eamonn Walker, reminds him that he serves at God's indulgence, while his family -- slickly professional Queen Rose (Susanna Thompson) and brother-in-law/corporate honcho WIlliam Cross (a somewhat thankless role for outstanding character actor Dylan Baker), wonder if he's "doing the God thing" in his speech, pointing out that God isn't any too popular with the public these days.
McShane -- who is absolutely fantastic in every scene he's in, getting opportunities to stretch that he wasn't given by his character on Deadwood, and sinking his teeth into the enjoyably highfalutin dialogue many of the show's key scenes are written in -- does indeed do the God thing, infusing the story of his coronation (a running gag is that he's constantly telling his court historian exactly how to write up various current events) with a nicely displayed sense of religious terror. I'm not religious in the least, but it's nice to see a show that treats the existence of God as neither a joke or a moral bludgeon, and McShane plays the whole thing nicely -- King Silas' belief in the divine right of kings serves him as inspiration and confidence-builder as well as subtle threat. After all, if you oppose the king's wishes, you oppose the very will of God himself. The scene also serves to introduce one of the show's ongoing visual metaphors, as McShane describes his anointing by God with a crown of butterflies -- a symbol that will come back to haunt him by the end of the pilot. His speech, drawn straight from the bible, shows how the most high-toned religious jibber-habber can seem powerful coming from the mouth of a charismatic figure.
We first meet star Christopher Egan (as David Shepherd -- no doubt he has an older brother Jack who's a spinal surgeon) in his impossibly idyllic family farmhouse during a chance meeting with Walker's Rev. Samuels -- and before you know it, we jump ahead two years to see him and his brother having joined the military, and involved in a border impasse with enemy nation Gath. The bad guys capture a company of Gilboan soldiers (including the King's oldest son, the dissipated schemer Jack, nicely played by Sebastian Stan) and hold them hostage to sue for peace; this sets up the show's take on the legendary Bible story of David and Goliath. Frankly, the thing came across as a pretty hokey action sequence to me; the device of making Goliath nothing more than a big tank didn't quite work, and it seems they could have come up with a slightly more clever way of framing it without making it an actual giant human, but since Kings has already been accused by some critics of being too talky, I guess they more or less had to go this route. The upshot, of course, is that David becomes a national hero, is showered with affection by King Silas, attracts the attention of the King's daughter Michelle (a pretty and inoffensive Allison Miller) -- and makes himself an enemy to the man he saves, as Jack immediately sizes him up as a rival for the crown.
There are a few scenes that follow that really are a bit too wordy and slow, even in a two-hour pilot with lots of backstory to cover, and which probably justify some of those critical complaints. We learn that David doesn't really care for the big city, has a low tolerance for the spotlight, and isn't quite at home with the decadent ways of the Royal Family (in one nice little bit of quiet comedy, a sexy bartender slips him her phone number, and he reacts to it as if someone had slid a dead fish across the bar). While he's being feted as the new golden boy of the court, he slips away to play Beethoven on the piano and get flirty with the King's daughter. He's given a job he hates as military press liasion (where he makes a ham-handed attempt to get in good with Michelle by mentioning one of her pet political projects); meanwhile, Jack is shunted to a desk job as an investigation looks into whether or not his poor leadership was responsible for the capture of his men. His father points out that the investigation isn't what he should worry about: it's his own homosexual promiscuity, which McShane bluntly explains -- in another unusually nuanced evocation of religion -- simply will not do for a man of his stature. "You cannot be what God made you," he barks, "not if you want to be King."
Of course, we soon learn that McShane himself has had to make some sacrifices in his personal life to be king. While the government of Gath sues for peace, his brother-in-law, the head of a huge military-industrial corporation called CrossGen, urges further war, and threatens King Silas with the exposure of the illegitimate chld he fathered with another woman. The King folds, and what's more, we learn that he was responsible for sending his son's company into dangerous territory. When the war is being prosecuted, David's brother is an early casualty, spurring him to head to the front lines and engage in a gripping confrontation with the enemy -- the denoument of which is nicely obscured by the NBC bullet at the lower corner of the screen. Nicely done, that. The fallout from David's act of bravery (inspired by the somewhat unsurprising revelation that he was paralyzed with fear during his confrontation with the Goliath tank) galvanizes the country and forces King Silas to do the right thing -- which triggers a hostile confrontation with CrossGen, who approach his son Jack and begin grooming him to take over for his father. The episode ends with David, out for a walk in the palace grounds, being crowned with a wreath of butterflies -- a beautifully filmed scene the significance of which does not escape the jealous King Silas.
Overall, I was mightily impressed by the first episode. There were indeed stretches of talk that went on too long, but that may be inevtiable in a pilot; and while it's easy to see where Kings could get too deep into the soap-opera elements, I was pleasantly surprised with how well they were integrated into the overall story tonight. The intrigue was nicely set up, the action scenes were deftly filmed (as are the more mystical bits; the battle scene with the butterfly alighting on the barrel of an assult rifle was outstandingly composed), the acting is generally strong, and the creators, based on some of the establishing shots and glimpses of background information, have obviously done a lot of world-building which may pay off down the road. I actually enjoyed the flowery language -- it fit the alternate-world setting enough that it didn't seem ridiculous, and it gave McShane plenty of chances to remind us of Deadwood even though he couldn't say "cocksucker". There are a couple of flaws that could prove fatal down the road -- there's not enough to the story to keep the show going for more than a season, which might be troublesome if it proves popular enough the be renewed (though my guess is that it won't), and the whole subplot of the CrossGen Corporation seems out of place and awkward, and unlikely to get any better. But it's downright pleasing to see a show with a ton of ambition; even more amazing to see it actually live up to that ambition for the most part; and downright miraculous for a broadcast TV network, especially the risk-averse NBC, to put the damn thing on the air. I'm very eager to see where it goes from here.
- I loved the banter with the two royal security guards – I hope we see more of them, even though they seemed more Shakespearian than Biblical.
- Ian McShane really is just fantastic in this. There are scenes where he's loving, regretful, and tender, and there are scenes where he shows the pure brutality inherent in a royal system of governance, and one fantastic moment, played in total silence, where he rebukes an aide for daring to get up after a meeting before he does. Regardless of where the show goes from here, McShane's gonna be worth watching every step of the way. (Also good: TV veteran Marlyne Afflack as family counselor Thomasina.)
- So, TV Club commenters, did you watch this? If you did, what did you think of it? If you didn't, what would get you to give it a chance? I'm curious to hear what any of y'all thought, even if you didn't like it as much as I did.