Five Torches (Out of Five)
The new NBC series Kings, debuting Sunday in a two-hour movie, is top-notch television — smart, original, and thoroughly engrossing – and it will end up reshaping the television landscape in much the way fantasy-esque shows such as Lost and Buffy the Vampire Slayer did.
The first half of the above sentence is definitely true. The second half may be true if American audiences are willing to give this brilliant, but daring new show a chance.
But that’s a big “if.” TV audiences have never seen anything quite like Kings.
Kings is a retelling of the biblical story of King David, set in an alternate time-line where medieval kingdoms coexist with modern technology. In this alternate universe, the king has a “court” in a glass skyscraper. And “petitions to the king” coexist with cell-phones and hand grenades.
“King of all I survey,” King Silas (Deadwood’s Ian McShane) says at one point, “and I still can’t find an office chair that doesn’t give me back spasms.”
“I grew up reading comics and there’s sort of a shorthand vocabulary for people who are used to alternate universe stuff,” says Kings creator Michael Green, who worked previously on Heroes. “But one of the challenges or sort of fun parts of this show, trying to get it off the ground, is explaining it to people who are not. Most people, they ask me questions and I say, ‘Give it five minutes and if you still have a problem, you can call me on the phone at home.’ Generally after five minutes they understand the physics of the world.”
Sure enough, the language of the show is an interesting blend of contemporary and “arch.” A courtly scribe even follows the king, writing hagiography — on a mobile electronic device, of course.
In the world of Kings, King Silas was chosen, apparently by God, to rule. But an endless war has sapped the kingdom’s resolve, and corruption threatens to undermine the palace from within.
Enter David, a humble but handsome young soldier who makes a name for himself defeating an “impenetrable” enemy tank – called, appropriately enough, “Goliath.”
Is Silas destined to be replaced by the new king? As in the biblical story of David, even God seems to think so. But Silas isn’t going down without a fight.
The characters in Kings are all, in a way, cliches: the arrogant, tyrannical king; the bitter, scheming queen; the virginal, but plucky princess; the scheming, entitled prince; and – most of all — the charmed “golden” hero who arises from hardscrabble origins, but who is destined to be the “true” heir to the throne.
But despite its modern-day setting, Kings exists in a fantasy, mythical world. Its “clichés” are really archetypes.
The whole point of Kings – part of the reason why I found it such daring, interesting television — is that it presents these “classic,” even biblical characters and situations, but then subverts them with the present-day setting and modern sensibilities.
At one point, David (Christopher Egan), teases the princess, saying, “Princessing is hard work, huh?”
“Health reform, actually,” this post-feminist princess says, wryly pointing out where her true priorities lie.
The prince, meanwhile, has a very contemporary secret that puts him at odds with his father,who believes sacrifices must be made for the throne (although the hypocritical king definitely has a few secrets of his own).
“I have been writing television long enough to realize you have to give credit to your audience because you write for the audience you hope are watching it, which are people who are willing to pay attention and lean forward and not be doing three other things,” Kings creator Green says. “You write shows for people who get invested in them enough to pay attention and sort of learn the rules, and one thing I enjoy doing is not giving it all away in the first — like something that you sort of parse out slowly over time.”
Is there enough of a mass audience for such an unusual, original show — one that really does require the viewers full attention? I hope there is, but part of me worries there isn’t — especially given the backlash to last week’s complicated Watchmen.
Will Kings rule? We’ll know the answer soon enough.
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