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Signs and Wonders: An Advance Review of NBC's "Kings"

I'm feeling very torn about NBC's new midseason offering Kings, a modern-day retelling of the Biblical story of David, here set in an alternate universe that's a dark mirror of our own.

On the one hand, Kings, created by former Heroes writer Michael Green, is an ambitious series that fuses the Biblical with the Shakespearean and offers up a soapy look at the politics of war and the throne. Its cast, in particular the incomparable Ian McShane (Deadwood), is pretty damn top-notch and its production values are among the very best in television: the production design drips the pomp and circumstance of a self-proclaimed king.

Yet for all of that, there's something cold and off-putting about the series. Perhaps that's due to its often glacial pace (the network didn't do any favors by allowing director Francis Lawrence to cut a two-hour pilot) or the fact that, rather than use the story of David as a metaphor for our own current war on terror and the current economic climate, Green chose to set Kings in an alternate universe. This world, enmeshed in a never-ending battle between the kingdoms of Gilboa and Gath, is on the surface seemingly very similar to our own, filled as it is with Blackberries, celebrities, and scheming politicos. But it's the little differences--the preponderance of omen-signifying butterflies, monarchical crests, and strangely named sovereign territories--that actually take the viewer out of the experience.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Kings is nominally the story of young solider David Shepherd (Chris Egan), the seventh son of a slain soldier and a brusque rural mother, who finds himself unwittingly a symbol of hope and peace when he defeats the impregnable Goliath tank in a showdown with Gath that puts him on the cover of every newspaper. In the process, he happens to rescue Jack, the ne'er-do-well son (Sebastian Stan) of their ruler, King Silas Benjamin (McShane).

Overnight, David finds himself taken from the front and set up in an apartment in the ultramodern Shiloh City, the capital of Gilboa and a shining example of both Silas' overwhelming success as a ruler and of super-clean urban planning, should Manhattan have been swept clean of all refuse. There, he becomes a celebrated member of the royal household, attracting the eye of the high-minded princess Michelle (Allison Miller) while causing friction behind the scenes, particularly when it comes to the icy Queen Rose (Susanna Thompson). Silas, it seems, will give the boy whatever he wants--half his kingdom, even--for rescuing Jack. That is when he's not trying to gave David murdered for stealing his spotlight and possible for being the next God-chosen ruler of Gilboa.

And that's where things get muddled. Over the course of the three episodes of Kings supplied to press for review, it's hard to keep track of whether Silas wants David as an ally or whether he's designing a coffin for him, so often does the king's motivation vacillate. And rather than keep things focused on the improbable advancement of David and his deepening relationship with Silas, there's a host of other subplots to juggle: a vow made by Michelle that puts her relationship with David at risk; a secret lover and child that Silas visits in the countryside; a power grab by the queen's ambitious brother William (Dylan Baker) involving the treasury; a secret harbored by Jack about his personal life; a secret prisoner held for decades in the palace dungeons; palace retainers are wise fools. The list goes on and on.

Which is fine if this was meant to be a guilty pleasure soap but Kings has pretensions of being more than that, of retelling an old story in an effort to offer a commentary on our own issues with power, war, money, and fame, no matter whether we live in America or Gilboa. It seems undecided about whether it's a parable about the strength of the individual against a giant adversary, a taut drama about the struggles of a weary ruler, a soapy look into the lives of Manhattan's--sorry, Shiloh City's--elite, or a political thriller set in a war-torn nation.

Adding to the audience fatigue are the Shakespearean monologues that McShane gets to deliver each episode. While they are meant to be gems of pure oratory charm (even if McShane leans slightly too heavy on scenery-chewing), they are undermined by the feeling that we're supposed to be rooting for the shining golden boy David, who, in comparison to the grandeur and power of McShane's Silas, feels more than a little dull. Egan is far too easily upstaged by McShane, who definitely has the meatier part, channeling as he does the Biblical King Saul here, crossed with the monomaniacal charms of a full-maned Lex Luthor, while the closed door conspiracies and corrupt politics seemed better dramatized in HBO's Rome than they do here.

In the end, that we would all likely rather follow the corrupt if charismatic king than the naive Shepherd (and, yes, his name really is Shepherd) is a bit of a problem for Kings, which seems to have a kitchen sink mentality when it comes to signs and wonders, offering up butterflies, birds, and deer in the first three episodes alone. But the main portent I took away from watching the first three episodes, despite admiring NBC for taking a risk for putting an ambitiously serialized drama such as this on the air, is that I don't really care who controls Gilboa in the end. For a series about the spiritual and physical battle for the throne, this is quite a bad omen indeed. And you don't need a flock of butterflies to tell you that.

Kings premieres Sunday evening at 8 pm ET/PT on NBC.


TVBlogster said…
From what I've gleaned from the promos and sneak peaks - this is a biblical version of "Dirty Sexy Money". IMO, Ian McShane doesn't replace the wonderful Peter Krause or Donald Sutherland.
Pat F. said…
It's interesting to read this review in retrospect (now that the show is up to episode 10). First, the reviewer got so many points and names wrong (the director, the b-i-l) that you wonder about his attention span. And the pieces he found so confusing add up to a coherent whole.

Had the show BEEN confusing and silly, it would have done better in the ratings.
Beau Brotherton said…
I happen to love this series and hope that it will last to a second season. Being a biblical man and "film nut", I am very excited to see, as the reviewer himself stated, very high production value with a biblical story. The story of David is one of the greatest stories ever told. Biblically, could be argued that it is only second to the story of Jesus Christ. And interesting enough, Jesus was birthed from the direct genealogy line of David. I am very interested how the show ends the first season; will the prediction of the savior of Jerusalem (or Shiloh) be brought up?

The show has a vote from me, I’ll continue to watch. :)

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