**Disclaimer: This post is a 2,000-word review of a TV series that I want to share. It includes plot spoilers, so either you watch it first, or you read this and know the general outline before watching. Or you never watch it. Or you don’t bother reading this post. Up to the reader!**
Back in 2009, NBC aired a show called “Kings”. It was loosely based on the story of the biblical David–you know, the one who slew Goliath. But the twist was that it was set in a much more technologically advanced era: the present. How can a story of kings and giants be set in today’s day and age, you ask? With careful craft and a talented cast.
The show at the time of its airing did not gain as much popularity as had been hoped, and after broadcasting a few episodes in a primetime slot, it was delayed till summer and moved to the weekend to finish out its days in obscurity, never to be renewed for a second season. Yet it is my opinion that this under-sung series deserves a second look.
I have always been a fan of stories with plot twists and betrayals, intrigue, gossip, and a healthy helping of good looking people making out with each other. A lot of people share my taste: Game of Thrones certainly wouldn’t be so popular if it didn’t serve up a slice of what everyone is craving. I say that Kings compares well with Game of Thrones, since at its core it is a story of palace intrigue in a mystical land where higher powers are real. The problem that most people had with Kings when it emerged was how it presented “God”. The Christians were upset that the Bible was being taken lightly while the realists called it a gimmick. Why can’t we look at it as it was meant to be interpreted? This is a fantasy series, and the unlikely “acts of God” which shape the plot are exactly as magical as the God of Light in Game of Thrones (GoT). Just because the show is in the guise of the modern day does not make it any less a fantasy.
I returned to watch this series for one reason: my recent obsession with actor Sebastian Stan. In fact, back in 2009, I watched the premier of Kings on television, and I did quite enjoy it. But I never got to finish watching it at the time because it was moved. Mr Stan caught my attention all the way back then, for his portrayal of King Silas Benjamin’s son, Jack. The character is the first-born son, yet cursed with a trait for which his father cannot forgive him: he is gay. Despite acting like a careless party animal, he is also ambitious for his father’s crown, stopping at nothing to prove that he is a worthy successor. Sebastian’s ability to emote awes me. He has all facets of this character’s personality down to a T: the devil-may-care smile, the conspiring smirk, the hurt puppy eyes at his father’s disappointment, the smouldering jealousy at the king’s preference for David. I just don’t know how he does all that with his face! (tiny crush, can you tell?)
Mr Stan’s most recent claim to fame is his role as the Winter Soldier in the Captain America sequel. Before that, another television show I love to bits, Once Upon A Time, allowed him to show off in the role of Jefferson, otherwise known as the Mad Hatter. My life wouldn’t be complete without a handsome celebrity obsession, so it’s Mr Stan’s turn up to bat! Having watched his development over the years (having now caught myself up on most of his other movies), all I can say is I look forward to his next performance!
One other note: what will I not be talking about? How closely Kings sticks to the original story in the Bible. Why? Because I haven’t read it since I was in Catholic school. And it doesn’t matter. The point is not how closely something sticks to its original version. That’s why it’s called a “version”, not a copy! There’s a saying that “everything is a remix”. Some people call it a crime. Me, I say go for it. Take something someone else made and adapt it. Adapt the hell out of it. Make something new. Make something different. Make something better. Or worse (Shyamalan should never have touched Avatar: the Last Airbender, and that animated Hobbit film should never have seen daylight, in my opinion). So one thing this review is not is a comparison between Kings and the story of David.
Now to get back to what’s so great about Kings. I mentioned two factors, handicraft and casting, so let’s start there. I truly appreciated the work that went into the story-telling of the series. We can talk about the pacing of each episode, how there was always a major event or theme within each, segmented into acts giving exposition, conflict, climax, and denouement, finishing with a teaser that left you crying for the next episode. The politics, the ambitions of each character which influenced their actions, all work together seamlessly and believably. Sometimes there is a tang of soap opera to the dialogue, especially in the case of the Queen, but it’s forgivable if you remember that after all, it is a TV series. It’s supposed to be entertainment, so I always feel that if the writers want to indulge themselves a little, why antagonise them for it?
The dialogue in the series is actually an interesting point. Often the characters will speak in flowery, almost Biblical phrases, reminding you of the fantastical nature of the setting. This is not our world, it is the kingdom of Gilboa, where kings have memoirists following them about, chronicling the history of their reign. It is a fascinating land to enter as a viewer.
Then there is “God”. I thoroughly enjoy this element. In a lot of series, the hero survives impossible situations for no reason at all. But in Kings it’s been set up from the get-go: David is the chosen one. We don’t have to try so hard to suspend our belief as the viewer, because his luck has been explained. Signs are given by God, sometimes visible to the characters, sometimes just left for the audience. There is always significance to them which is sometimes not clear until the climax of the episode. It’s interesting to see the characters themselves misinterpret them, which in turn acts as a glamour which prevents the audience from guessing what will happen too soon. I know when I watch a show I don’t like to try and out-think the writers, instead preferring to go along for the ride and allow myself the naïveté of being surprised.
Also present are the eternal complications of ruling a nation: who holds the power, the ruler or his financer? In Kings, King Silas was a general who fought to unify his nation, funded by the man who became his brother-in-law, the owner of the corporation CrossGen. Sound familiar? In GoT, King Robert Baratheon was the warrior who overthrew the tyrant king, but who funded his army? Tywin Lannister, his father-in-law. Or look to the history of any nation for a sample. The family with the money holds the true power, like the Fujiwara clan of feudal Japan. And who’s really in charge of the US government? Some might say the banks. In a series this provides an excellent source of drama, and often an excellent antagonist. It’s believable.
The second factor which elevates Kings in my eyes is its cast. I’ve already discussed my darling Sebastian Stan, but the other leads are all very well chosen. Ian McShane plays King Silas, and does a brilliant job of capturing the warrior, the poet, the father, the mad-man… all aspects of his personality. The big name on the cast list is Macauley Culkin, who plays the exiled son of the king’s brother-in-law. Unfortunately the series never gets to tell us the reason why the son was exiled in the first place. Possibly it was to be revealed in the second season. Culkin does well with what he was given and the character provides an almost Batman’s Joker-esque element of chaos with his actions. I could go on and on about the rest of the cast, from Thomasina the king’s secretary-come-advisor,to the pair of comic-relief watchmen… there’s Reverend Samuels (an incarnation of the biblical Samuel, the priest who anoints David, giving him God’s blessing), the king’s daughter Michelle, David’s mother and brothers… I have absolutely no complaints.
David is played by Christopher Egan, who, I must admit, at the start just seemed like a pretty face. (And let me just take a moment right here to say: WHY THE HELL ARE ALL THESE GORGEOUS LEADS CALLED CHRIS??? Chris Pine, Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Chris Pratt…I’m not sure if they’re all naturally blond too, but the characters they play are. It’s getting a bit freaky.) I wasn’t expecting much from him. But he rose to the challenge of David’s character. In the beginning, he is naive–a boy from a farm who works as a mechanic. He enlists as a soldier to serve his country, emulating his father who died protecting his family’s home from Gath, Gilboa’s rival nation to the north. At this stage David is blindly loyal to Gilboa and its king. He acts as a hero, with no thoughts of glory for himself. But when he enters that world of royalty and banquets, and begins to understand the subtlety of politics, he begins to change. He has trouble adjusting at first: he speaks frankly in front of the cameras, in front of the Gath delegation. He is open and honest, and at first it seems as though he is making a mistake in being that way. But it is exactly his honesty that leads to change for the better.
One of the pivotal moments of the series happens early on, in the pilot episode. On the grounds of the royal palace, a crown of butterflies descends upon David’s head–the exact same sign that King Silas was given by God to signify that it was his time to reign. But interesting to note is that the only two people to witness this are David and the king. The entire nation knows the story of King Silas’s butterflies since he retells it over and over in public. This series would have been over from the start if the whole nation knew about David’s butterflies. But they don’t. So we are left with innocent David, who sees them as a sign to serve his king, and suspicious Silas, who is wary from this point onward about David coming to replace him. He tries to have David killed on numerous occasions, but also sees his usefulness. The wavering of the king on the point of David is pivotal to the entire series. Are they friends? Are they enemies? It all depends on how David sees it.
By the end of the series, David is beginning to understand that he has been chosen by God to succeed Silas. He receives more visions, including one of himself as king. The actor does an excellent job of portraying this newfound confidence. He expresses it with his eyes, the tone of command in his voice. David is growing up. It’s a shame that we never get to see David become king! The series ends after 13 episodes, never to be renewed for a second season.
And what a second season it would have been! The first ended by wrapping up the main conflict that it introduced, yet set everything up for a harrowing second run. The heart of the series is how Silas has lost God’s favour and David is now the chosen king. Yet he does not get his crown in this season. No, the subtleties of the push and pull of David and Silas’s king/soldier, incumbent/usurper relationship are maintained to the utmost in the season finale. To resolve the coup d’etat of the Queen’s brother, David sees to it that Silas regains his throne. Yet Silas, who has heard the word of God in a thunderstorm, knows for certain now that it is David, not he, who is destined to be king. So he still wants him gone. David, with nowhere to run, flees to the neighbouring kingdom of Gath, Gilboa’s sworn enemy. I could see it all playing out now, David raising support, further intrigue in Silas’s court… The Reverend Samuels is now dead, yet seems to appear as a ghost, Obi-wan-style, to advise and warn. A second season would be all that was needed to put David in his rightful place.
But maybe that’s exactly why the 13-episode run was perfect. Kings now rests in a state achieved by few series: it has given the viewer enough juicy story to digest, yet leaves us wanting more. Our imaginations are unspoilt; we don’t have to watch the writers ruin what we picture happening in our heads. Most series get too drawn out, trivialising the work of one season through repetition and overworked plotlines. And so I raise a glass to Kings, in my eyes one of the finer specimens of television series.
Another view: “Kings was an Awkward Alternate Universe Gone Too Soon”
Also, does Jack Benjamin live on in the portrayal of T.J. Hammond from USA’s Political Animals? The miniseries is over, so I guess I better check it out! Here’s a cute blog about Sebastian Stan’s angst in Kings, with a trailer for Political Animals at the end.