The Death of Kings
Why you should be sorry you never watched NBC's biblical drama.
Next Tuesday, the day after Yom Kippur, NBC will release the first and only season of its biblical drama Kings on DVD. I assume the release date is a coincidence, but if you do happen to be atoning on Monday, you might want to take a few seconds to offer a brief apology—to NBC, to creator Michael Green, to star Ian McShane, to me—for not having watched the show. This sin of omission not only deprived you of one of the great television-watching pleasures of recent years but also deprived the few of us who did watch Kings of a second enthralling season.
Kings is a retelling of one of the Bible's most gripping episodes, the story of David and Saul. Aging King Saul and his young protégé battle for the throne, for the adoration of the people, for the love of the king's daughter, for the approval of the prophet Samuel, and for the blessing of God. The backdrop is a divided nation recovering from decades of war. Both men are heroic, both are flawed. It's a tale crammed with violence, sex, and intrigue. Why on earth did no one ever think to dramatize it before?
In Michael Green's version, King Saul of Israel has become King Silas of Gilboa, played by McShane, who makes an even better modern monarch than he was an Old West saloonkeeper. David, a shepherd in the biblical tale, is now "David Shepherd," who wins glory in the pilot episode by rescuing Silas' captured son Jack and disabling one of the enemy's unstoppable tanks. (The tank, of course, is called the "Goliath.") The other star of Kings is the kingdom itself. Gilboa is the most original creation of the show, a nation that is modern and Westernized in every respect—cell phones, cable news, nightclubs—except for one: It is ruled by a totalitarian monarch, and that monarch is literally blessed by God.
Kings is gorgeous to watch and thrillingly strange to listen to. Green conjures a world that is just different enough from ours to mesmerize. There's a stunning Scandinavian-modern throne room (actually a jazz concert hall in the Time Warner building); a capital city that mingles old New York buildings with sharp-edged computer-generated skyscrapers; and everywhere there is the vivid flag of Gilboa—a butterfly silhouette on a field of orange. (With its royal conniving and melodrama, Kings very much resembles I, Claudius,but the Rome of I, Claudius looked leaden and fake compared with the elegant magnificence of Gilboa.)
The dialogue, meanwhile, is unlike anything I've ever heard on TV. King Silas' vocabulary is modern American English, but his syntax is weird and stilted, words jumbled and juggled until everything sounds backward. Check out this snippet from Silas' speech marking the beginning of Judgment Day, when the king rehears 10 judicial cases of his choosing:
We made laws where there were none. We mined justice from sand. … And today the last recourse, for those of you who feel themselves denied fair address of grievance, 10 cases, here selected. I alone will adjudicate, divine wisdom my only counsel, and my gavel sound only after my words correct what is not right.
On the page it looks corny. But intoned by McShane, invested with the majesty he convincingly brings to the role, these pronouncements are riveting. I could listen to him all day.
Naturally, one of the pleasures of Kings, particularly for a Bible junkie, is observing where the show is faithful to the original story and where it tinkers. In the Bible, for example, Saul's son Jonathan has a curiously homoerotic relationship with David (they're always kissing and confessing their love). Kings picks up on that subtext and runs with it: Its Prince Jack is gay, but he's closeted. In at least one instance, Kings actually improves on the original. The story of David and Saul features one of the Bible's most maddening lapses in logic. In the biblical story, young David first appears as Saul's court musician, the only person who can soothe the king's madness. But a couple of chapters later, when David defeats the giant Goliath, Saul has no idea who the boy is—even though David is supposedly his most beloved servant. Kings cleans up this mess with a clever narrative move that pays homage to the original while avoiding the confusion it's inspired in generations of readers.
David Plotz is the Editor of Slate. He's the author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank and Good Book. He appears on Slate's Political Gabfest.
Still of Ian McShane in Kings © 2009 NBC Universal.