John Walker's Electronic House

Television: Kings

by on Mar.27, 2009, under Television

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.

6 Comments for this entry

  • Pace

    Apologies, this is off topic, but I saw this quote from Ron D. Moore about that pigeon you complained about, thought you may find it, um, interesting?

    “Why a pigeon??

    The image of the bird was just than — an image. I had no idea what it meant or symbolized, but just saw this picture of a man (didn’t even know it was Lee) trying to chase a bird out of his house with a broom. We put it up on the board and then folded it into the story of Lee without trying to define exactly what it meant. I still don’t know exactly what it meant. I don’t want to.”

    Eh. I clearly thought waaaay too much about that show.

  • Andy Krouwel

    On topic!

    Gave this a go this evening, but sorry John – thought they were layering it on far too thick to watch.
    Oooh! The enemy tanks are called Goliaths (It’s stencilled on the front, in case you missed them dropping it heavily in the conversations)! Hang on, wasn’t that farm guy called David! I WONDER WHAT COULD POSSIBLY HAPPEN NEXT !!!?!!!?

    Maybe it got better later on, but not a hit for the missus.

  • John Walker

    Pace – I read that, and was almost impressed that I was completely right: it was meaningless, pointless, and an insultingly stupid inclusion.

    Andy – It’s frustrating to see you’ve rejected it based on the one thing I identified as a mistake in an otherwise stunning programme. There ARE tanks called Goliaths (Nazis used them in WW2 in our reality), and the story IS about David and Saul, in which David comes to Saul’s attention after he bravely defeats a giant called Goliath. They had to have David defeat Goliath. Or, well, they wouldn’t have been telling the story, would they?

    Being smug about knowing better doesn’t seem a productive response. Of course you knew he was going to succeed. But you’d also have known that if he’d been called Simon, and the tanks were called “Big Tank VII”, because it’s a TV show establishing the hero. That, in the opening 15 minutes of a 100 minute episode, it shows you how their David and Goliath story plays out… it’s not exactly at fault for being predictable, is it?

    It’s also predictable that David will eventually rise to power after Saul dies, and then his leadership will turn to corruption when he has his best friend murdered after he’s had an affair with his wife. Shouting about how OBVIOUS it will be doesn’t appear a very sensible reaction.

  • Andy Krouwel

    I see that you acknowledge that as a particularly cheesy moment (I only read the short review before watching, to avoid spoilers), but it came as the ‘switch off’ moment for my panel of viewers. The show simply hadn’t built up enough credit in the previous ten minutes to give it the benefit of the doubt.

    It’s just not for me. It seemed heavy handed, & I was expecting something more allegorical than literal. It may sound odd, but it felt a little too ‘Bush era’.

    Glad to see it’s got an appreciative audience though, I’m just not it.

  • cmichaelcooper

    The human mind is conditioned to look for patterns, and things that are familiar. The heavy-handed approach to the premiere of Kings was appropriate in that respect, as they were providing a definitive place for the audience to connect before things get political and slippery.

    I am disappointed it is getting canceled, but not at all surprised, since it’s NBC. After spending so much money, I don’t know why they premiered it so late in the season, and on Sunday nights. With the cinematic quality of the show, they could have built suspense all summer and premiered it on Monday night and it might have done well.

    I don’t know about television abroad, but when is the United States going to get sick of Cops/Forensics shows and Hospital shows? Kings really brought my hopes up for a minute. For that matter, I even enjoyed Crusoe, even though it felt like a cheesy Scifi channel show most of the time. Kings definitely belongs on HBO.

  • John Walker

    Yes, the sadly obvious doom of Kings on NBC offered no surprises. It is also a shame that the quality of the programme also dropped off sharply after episode 3. It’s as if they’ve been afraid of rushing too far ahead with the story, or perhaps spending too much money.

    Either way, it certainly needed to be on a nurturing channel, such as HBO, and not on the ratings-or-death NBC. I hear it’s now not even getting a Saturday airing, but being thrown out during the Summer.