This past Saturday ended NBC’s noble experiment, Kings, the modern day, alternate universe retelling of the Biblical story of King David. My amazement that such a wild concept could ever get aired, NBC soon shared with me – the show barely got 4 episodes out before losing its original timeslot, then going on hiatus, then getting canceled.
What made Kings so daring? Again, the concept, while ridiculous on its face, gives rise to such entertaining opportunities. The internecine power struggles of a royal family, living in a one-off Manhattan, with all the intrigues that modern technology and economics can bring to bear? How could that not be awesome? Add in the tangible presence of God – a real God, a jealous Old Testament God, a God men worship not because he’s the source of good but because he’s the source of power. The possibilities intoxicate.
On top of that, the casting was nearly perfect. Christopher Egon, the unknown Australian who played David Shepherd, blended the seriousness of patriotism and the naivete of youth: at times stern, at times confused. Allison Miller brought fire to one of the weaker roles on the show – Princess Michelle – by plunging into whatever conflict was in front of her with an equal and believable passion. But the prize goes to Deadwood‘s Ian McShane as the eloquent, untouchable King Silas Benjamin. He delivers kingly speeches in iambic pentameter with such casual gravitas that you don’t even notice their artificiality.
And that highlights the greatest of Kings‘ strengths: the ability to make you believe in a fantastic premise. A king, his family, his rivals and a God visible through signs and omens: that’s a premise better suited to a Lois Bujold novel than a primetime broadcast TV series. But the show makes it work. You believe that these people are kings and queens, even though (in the show’s own history) the monarchy of Gilboa is barely twenty years old, because they carry themselves with royal dignity. You believe that God exists not just because Rev. Samuels can black out an entire building by striking it with an open hand, but because Silas reacts to the stunt with such disdain (“Changing from arcana to tricks?”).
People talk as if they believe what they’re saying and they know what it means. That’s what made Kings work.
So why didn’t it last?
I had no trouble with the dialogue, but I recognize that it grew elusive at times. Highly poetic, even in casual conversation, it ran on into rambling sentences that referred back to earlier images. On top of the words, the show itself relied on conveying meaning through imagery: smokestacks and flags blowing in opposite directions, butterflies, sunlight and birds, etc. Like The Wire, Kings was less of a series than a novel put to video – and like The Wire, that complexity might have cost it an audience.
On top of that, shooting all those locations and exteriors in New York City gets really expensive.
The producers knew the show was doomed by the midway point of the season. The last five episodes – from “Pilgrimage” to the climactic two-parter, “The New King” – take on a very rushed feel as a result. Each episode carries the weight of three, introducing and burying multiple threads at a time. It made for very exciting television, even though some of the more interesting minor characters – Katrina Ghent, the palace guards Boyden and Klotz – got run over in the crush.
Does Kings have any hope? I’d like to see HBO or Showtime pick it up, though they likely couldn’t match NBC’s budget and the resulting series would feel claustrophobic. So I’m not sure we’re going to see the evolving war between Silas and David. Kings has no future; it remains in the mythic past that it borrowed from.