You really should watch Kings.
Here’s the simple reason: the recently reborn Ian McShane as a conflicted King, ruling over a modern nation, Gilboa, a place bearing many similarities with modern North America. Gilboa is in a long and bloody war with the neighbouring Gath. A soldier, formerly a farm worker, called David rescues the king’s son who has been taken hostage by Hath troops, and is welcomed into the king’s courts – in the capital city of Shiloh. Here he becomes involved in the politics of a new city under a new king. There’s war, there’s brilliant dialogue, there’s battling family members, and there’s a backstab every commercial break. It’s beautifully made, McShane is magnificent – bemusing you as to whether he’s Machiavellian, naive, selfish, selfless, murderous or peaceful – and most of all, it’s really damned smart. It’s a remarkable programme, and it should be watched.
That’s the short version. Long version:
When you first study Biblical history, you’re taught the groupings of the various types of books in the Old Testament. It goes: Pentateuch, Historical, Poetry, Major Prophets and Minor Prophets. The best bit of Historical is the “United Kingdom Period”, in both Samuel chapters, 1 Kings 1-11 and Chronicles. It’s when Israel is unified, and the people have clamoured for a king. God’s always warned them away from kings, but by this time there’s no avoiding it, and the cycle of kings and prophets begins. And it all begins in Gilboa, with the prophet Samuel being told by God to anoint Saul. It’s when the soap opera gets interesting, the politics and the relationships equally brutal.
This is where Kings kicks off. King Silas, brought to power partly by financial aid from Silas’ wife’s brother, William Cross, but mostly via the Reverend Ephram Samuels (you’ll see what they did there), inaugurates their new capital city, Shiloh. He tells the crowds of his appointment by God (acknowledging the unpopularity of this subject to the crowds), twenty years earlier as a brutal war came to an end, when butterflies formed a crown on his head. Now, the destroyed cities rebuilt, it’s a new era. He promises a time of prosperity.
Two years later and the war with the Gath continues. It’s a border thing, two nations nipping at each other. A former farm boy, David, is fighting on the front lines. When some soldiers are kidnapped by the Gath, David decides to single-handedly attempt a rescue, aware it will lead to a court martial. He rescues the soldiers, until on the way back across no-mans-land a Gath tank starts firing at them. Allowing the hostages to reach safety, he draws the tank’s fire away, taking meagre cover in a ditch. A rocket launcher fails to hit, and in desperation he takes a rocket shell and throws it at the tank. A perfect hit takes it out. So, it’s a Goliath tank, and he’s David, and it’s fairly heavy-handed.
However, that’s as close as it ever gets to cheesy. A newspaper headline, “David Slays Goliath”, is an obvious pun. It’s also an incongruous one, as the programme by its nature cannot know the story of David and Goliath, since it is the story of David and Goliath. Indeed, it’s the story of 1 Samuel, the rise of King Saul, and his welcoming David into his courts. It just happens to have occurred during a time of widescreen, flat-panel televisions, high-tech warfare, and cellphones.
Silas’ son, Jack, plays the role of Jonathan. I don’t want to spoil an interesting reveal, but he offers a refreshing approach to a particularly controversial interpretation of the man. It will be very interesting to see how the relationship between Jack and David develops as the series goes on – will they become so extremely close as their biblical counterparts?
But the reason to watch Kings is for the quality of the writing, the constantly surprising drama, and just how beautifully it’s shot. It’s not a hackneyed attempt to “update” a Bible narrative. In fact, it would most likely enrage the sorts of Christians who wish all TV would be such things. It’s mature, far more mature than anything else on NBC’s roster. It’s grown up. Like its source material. And despite the story’s themes, there’s more in common with Shakespeare than the Hebrew approach.
Modern Shakespeare is as likely to be corny mush as modern Bible, but Kings doesn’t simply avoid making such mistakes, but rather exemplify how it should always be approached. The dialogue is often richly poetic, switching from contemporary banter into archaic tones. People’s language actively shifts in poignant moments, taking on gravitas, and does so effectively. There are other Shakespearian themes, including a pair of guards who offer comic relief. And peculiarly, without being awful. Their role is not simply to be clowns, but rather to unwittingly change fates.
The role of God is also enormously interesting. The Reverend Samuels is an enormously powerful mind, and a smart, dangerous prophet. At one point in the opening two-parter, he literally delivers a message from God to Silas. And not a message Silas wants to hear.
The real test was episode three, after the two-parter’s explosive start. And it stands it. Less than 42 minutes long, it contains a tremendous amount of story, and feels just as powerful as the feature-length beginnings. If there are to be cracks, they’ve yet to appear. There’s so much more to discuss. Queen Rose’s constant deception that she will not get involved in politics, while she controls so very much with such terrifying precision. Princess Michelle (as Saul’s daughter, Michal). And the commentary on the roles of business in government, and the consequences. So far I’ve not seen anything that represents the Ark of the Covenant, but it surely has to be introduced soon.
I was recently chastised by Kieron for discussing the nature of network television, and the cancellation factor, when discussing a new TV show, but I really believe it’s enormously relevant. Kings has arrived in the second half of the season, and very late into it. It’s not often a good time. And NBC hasn’t had a lot of luck with its big budget output of late. The pilot came in fourth on its opening night, which isn’t a good start at all. And this is a programme that deserves viewers. My fear is that it’s simply on the wrong channel. This belongs on HBO, it looks and feels like HBO, and kudos to NBC for achieving that. But something that HBO and Showtime do that no other channels offer, is to develop programmes that achieve middling ratings. Their programmes celebrated as all-time greats did not bolt out of the gate. I fear for Kings on NBC – they’re not a network that’s proven capable at nurturing potential, and while I think Kings will complete its initial run, if it doesn’t build the audience it deserves, it won’t come back in October. I want this one, so long as it maintains the opening quality, so everyone damn well watch it.