TV Rewind: NBC’s Kings Proves Anything Was Once Possible on Network TVPhoto Courtesy of NBC TV Features Kings
Editor’s Note: Welcome to our TV Rewind column! The Paste writers are diving into the streaming catalogue to discuss some of our favorite classic series as well as great shows we’re watching for the first time. Come relive your TV past with us, or discover what should be your next binge watch below:
These days, network TV looks much the same no matter what broadcast channel you’re watching. A proliferation of spinoffs and unabashed copycats have stuffed the primetime landscape full to bursting with Law and Order sequels, new NCIS cities, and varying degrees of FBI investigations alongside the occasional cringey reboot of a show that really was better the first time around. But it wasn’t always like this.
Once, not so very long ago, NBC—now home to little beyond live sporting events and Dick Wolf’s ever-expanding television empire—launched a series that not only intended to retell the Biblical story of King David for a modern audience, but did so on the sort of massive scale now typically only found on prestige HBO dramas. That show was the high-concept Kings, and though it was the sort of failure that is surely still used as a cautionary tale by network executives in dark rooms somewhere, it was also one of the boldest and most audacious dramas ever attempted on broadcast television.
Kings predominantly followed the story of two men: King Silas Benjamin (Ian McShane), the morally suspect but also sort of well-meaning monarch of the Kingdom of Gilboa, who came to his throne by signs, portents, and the strength of his might as a military leader; and David Shepherd (Christopher Egan), a young soldier serving in the country’s seemingly endless war with the neighboring Kingdom of Gath.
When a sudden act of heroism sees David defeat one of Gath’s infamous Goliath tanks—though his victory comes via rocket launcher rather than a slingshot here—he is thrust into the messy web of Gilboan court politics. As a country boy in a world that is both deeply unfamiliar and wildly strange to him, David nevertheless feels called to use his position and privilege to benefit the people of Gilboa, and to support the king he believes God has chosen to rule over them.
Even now, in a world with shows like The Handmaid’s Tale and The Man in the High Castle making dystopian alternate realities feel almost commonplace, there’s still nothing on television like Kings. A breathtakingly ambitious series that wasn’t afraid to swing for the fences in every way imaginable, creator Michael Green’s 2009 drama embraced Biblical themes and human failings with equal gusto, giving its characters the sort of bombastic dialogue that felt like it might have actually belonged in the Old Testament, and asking the sort of complex questions about faith and destiny that most television shows, even now, still shy away from.
It’s never an easy thing to make a show about religion. And that’s doubly true when that show is based on the literal Bible. But Kings threads a careful narrative needle between honoring the basics of its source material and exploring larger issues of faith, unapologetically embracing the idea of religion as a universal good in people’s lives even as it grapples with the difficulties it often causes therein. (Let’s put it this way: Touched by an Angel, this is not.) In the world of this show, signs and portents are real, and God is active in the world in a real and tangible way. His will can be seen, if you’ve the ability to divine his message in your life.
Yet Kings is also surprisingly forthright about the fact that doubt is a natural and perhaps sometimes necessary thing, and the power of religion can all too easily be corrupted for selfish and secular ends. What does God want from us? How do we know if we’re fulfilling the role He expects us to perform? Are we interpreting His signs correctly? Or bending them to fit our own desires? How will we ever know for sure? Kings openly admits that maybe we can’t, and its painfully earnest attempt to grapple with these questions in a realistic way is a large part of its appeal.
McShane’s turn as King Silas would be reason enough to watch this show regardless, as he painted every overwrought word he delivers with an unmistakable regal ferocity. But Kings’ cast was full of fantastic performers, from Susanna Thompson’s icy turn as the manipulative Queen Rose (who definitely murders a girlfriend of her son’s that she doesn’t like), to the fierce moral righteousness of Eamonn Walker as a preacher desperate to save Silas’s soul, and Allison Miller’s plucky people’s princess Michelle, given both agency and ambitions that exist outside of her (admittedly sweet) romance with David. There’s even an extremely creepy guest appearance from Macauley Culkin. (How did that not launch the second act of his career?)
But today’s viewers will likely be most entranced by the performance of a young Sebastian Stan as Prince Jack Benjamin, a tortured soul who shares many similarities with characters the actor will take on later in his career. As Silas’ complicated, closeted son, Jack wrestles with his own desire for power, even as he questions whether that power is worth sacrificing his identity—and a boy he may actually love—to achieve. Out of every character on Kings it is Jack who most often feels as though he is being forged into something greater than the sum of his parts over the course of the series’ first season, and it is his journey that I am most upset we never got to see completed.
It’s kind of cliché now to debate whether a beloved canceled network show might have had a different fate in the streaming era, but it’s really difficult not to wonder what might have happened to a show like Kings had it arrived just a few short years later or on a different (cable) network. The show premiered just as the idea of prestige genre television was taking off, and before TV executives realized that there was an enormous audience of viewers out there looking for precisely the rich, alternate reality setting and nuanced storytelling at which Kings excelled.
It’s obvious that though NBC was willing to take the risk in making Kings, the network clearly had no idea what it had or how to market it, and lacked the patience to wait for viewers to connect with the show’s often slow-moving narrative. But its heady mix of two parts political drama and one part religious morality play with some soapy romance thrown on top was like nothing else on the network—before or since—and 12 years later, I wish NBC had more of it. Ambitious storytelling that challenges our conceptions of what television as a medium can be and do shouldn’t be the exclusive province of cable and streamers. Kings is proof that once it wasn’t, and like all good mystical stories, evidence that it could be once again.
Kings is not currently streaming (hopefully it will eventually come to Peacock), but a digital copy of the season can be purchased via VUDU, YouTube, or Amazon.
Lacy Baugher Milas is a digital producer by day, but a television enthusiast pretty much all the time. Her writing has been featured in Collider, IGN, Screenrant, The Baltimore Sun and others. Literally always looking for someone to yell about Doctor Who and/or CW superhero properties with, you can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.
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