Scriptural Soap


It’s extreme-makeover time for a portion of the Old Testament—and the results are pretty swanky. Kings, a recently launched NBC drama, sets the story of David and Saul in a parallel universe whose lifestyle is not unlike twenty-first-century America’s. With its intriguing characterization, gorgeous art direction, and plotting that joins war epic and high-society soap opera, Kings is gale-force entertainment. But the biblical references and the alternative-reality paradigm—rendering the familiar disorienting, and the disorienting familiar-elevate the series still further. Who expected such sterling artistic vision on network TV?

Evidently Kings creator Michael Green did. A co-executive producer of NBC’s Heroes, Green has planted the new series in the kingdom of Gilboa, a nation whose ancien régime-style political system hasn’t stymied the development of skyscrapers, cell phones, 24/7 news coverage, and other modern essentials.

Ruling over Gilboa is King Silas Benjamin (Ian McShane), a wily cynic who has maintained a sincere personal relationship with the divine. “It’s not popular to speak of God, but I do so now—and publicly, and I feel blessed!” he proclaims to a massive crowd in the show’s first episode. Not everyone in Gilboa feels blessed, though: the country is enmeshed in a bitter war with neighboring Gath. The hostilities reach a turning point when a young soldier named David Shepherd (Chris Egan) makes a daring foray behind enemy lines, destroys a Goliath (as Gaths’s tanks-on-steroids are called), and rescues a couple of captured Gilboan fighters. One of the prisoners happens to be Silas’s party-boy son Jack (Sebastian Stan), and before you can say “1 Samuel 18,” David has become a national hero and a media sensation.

What can you do with such a buzz-magnet but award him a post at the royal court in Shiloh—a newly founded metropolis that resembles a Windex-scrubbed New York City? (Kings is, in fact, shot in the Big Apple.) The juicy palace intrigue—corruption, illicit liaisons, deviously plotted guest lists, leaks of compromising photos—evokes the pages of Us Weekly; and the exceptionally good-looking nobles and hangers-on could blend right in on the teen soap Gossip Girl. Certainly the principled, cute-as-a-button princess Michelle (Allison Miller) could; and so could her appearance-conscious mother Queen Rose (Susanna Thompson), who resents David for siphoning attention away from the monarchy.

Part of the fun of watching Kings consists of spotting the biblical parallels. The Good Book’s David was a harpist; the hero of Kings is a mean piano player. A preacher named Rev. Ephram Samuels (Eamonn Walker) is Gilboa’s resident prophet, and princess Michelle is the Old Testament’s Michal updated for the Hillary Clinton era (Michelle’s pet project is reforming the kingdom’s health-care system). Some allusions are more nuanced: There is a psychological backstory to King Silas’s black moods, which seem to correspond to the evil spirit that seizes Saul. And Crown Prince Jack, the Jonathan stand-in, is gay (though closeted)—a nod to the homoerotic overtones some have detected in the friendship between Scripture’s David and Jonathan.

But if Kings gives its audience’s Bible knowledge a workout, it also echoes the preoccupations of today’s real world. Gilboa’s ugly war with Gath obviously evokes the U.S. entanglements in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention other global crises. Silas’s scheming brother-in-law William Cross (Dylan Baker) presides over CrossGen, a sprawling technology corporation that’s deeply invested in the Gilboa-Gath conflict—and may make some viewers think of a little outfit called Halliburton.

Everyday life in Gilboa is as media-saturated as anything in our own CNN- and blog-riddled era. Nearly every other scene in Kings features characters watching news coverage or checking out tabloid headlines. A building’s news ticker made a conspicuous cameo in a recent episode. (NBC has created a Web site for one of Gilboa’s news outlets: The deluge of reportage—which turns politics into performance—contrasts starkly with another communication system: the enigmatic signs (a crown of butterflies; a deer hit by a car) that, in the opinion of Silas, David, and Rev. Samuels, are messages from God.

Alas, visionary, cinematic, and profound though it is, Kings has not been doing well in the ratings—as of this writing, NBC has (gulp) put off airing the rest of the season’s episodes until June. (Some past episodes are available for a limited period at Surely in another, better universe such a knockout piece of programming would receive a royal welcome.

Published in the 2009-05-08 issue: 

Celia Wren is Commonweal’s media and stage critic.

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