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.
The ways Kings betrays the Bible can be even more interesting, evidence that even a faithful interpreter needs to clean up these stories to make them palatable to a contemporary audience. Biblical David is a notorious womanizer who can’t see a cute Israelite without bedding her (and killing her husband). The David of Kings is a romantic puppy, tediously faithful to the princess. Kings also soft-pedals the religious beliefs of its characters. The God of Kings is not Yahweh, and the Gilboan religion doesn’t appear to be either Judaism or Christianity. Religious ceremonies occur in churchlike buildings, but they’re resolutely nondenominational.
We’re clearly meant to believe God is real. Silas talks to the thunder and feels he’s conversing with God. And God’s blessing is tangible. A gorgeous, hypnotic cloud of butterflies circles and settles on the head of the Lord’s beloved, accompanied by New Age harps and choirs. But this butterflies-and-Enya kind of religion bears little resemblance to the faith of biblical David, Saul, and Samuel. The Israelites worshipped a brutal and uncompromising God, and they joyfully committed violence in his name. (Just listen to David as he taunts Goliath.) The men of Kings are doubters. They lack confidence that God is on their side and rarely act out of faith. David Shepherd doesn’t attack the Goliath tank to serve God, as biblical David did; he does it to rescue a fellow soldier. I imagine the producers favored this vaguer religion for pragmatic reasons: They wanted to offend as few people as possible. But it’s a bit of a cop out. A truer portrayal of David would have made him a more rabid fundamentalist.
Perhaps the most profound alteration in the source material is in the character of the king. Saul is the villain of the Book of Samuel, repeatedly attempting to assassinate David, disobeying direct orders from God, consulting with witches, and massacring innocent priests by the dozen. Silas is ruthless and occasionally vindictive, but he always seeks peace for his kingdom and prosperity for his people. (Perhaps a second season of Kings would have depicted Silas’ descent into paranoia.) Silas’ excessive goodness, in fact, compels Kings to manufacture a nonbiblical villain, an evil tycoon seeking to dethrone Silas and install a stooge monarch.
Despite its pedigree, Kings is most compelling not as a biblical drama but as a counterfactual history. If you (like me) are bewitched by accounts of worlds that don’t exist but could—alternative histories of the Civil War, realistic sci-fi dystopias—you’re likely to be fascinated by Kings. Our world is still filled with authoritarian, often religiously sanctioned monarchies (Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bhutan, various emirates) and familial dictatorships (North Korea). Gilboa, unlike any of these real monarchies, appears to be prosperous and free and tolerant. King Silas is all-powerful but also mostly just. The press is manipulated but not grotesquely. Gilboa has gay nightlife, an elaborate alternative energy grid, and religious tolerance. King Silas is even a foodie, always whipping up omelets for the princess.
At times during its short run, Kings was essentially a high-concept soap opera. Yet it was always a soap opera with genuine intellectual ambition, and at its best, it was a provocative thought experiment: How would a religious monarchy work in a modern, pluralistic society? Could the values that Americans cherish survive in such a system? And would the actual presence of God solve or compound the problems of governing a nation? (When God gets angry at Silas, for example, Gilboa’s windmill farms break down.)
These are, I admit, mostly fantastical problems. America is never going to crown a king, and even the most ardent Obama worshippers have not reported seeing him trailed by butterflies. And the real-world examples of religious monarchy (see: Saudi Arabia) demonstrate all too clearly that tolerance and kings don’t play nicely together. But at a time when partisan deadlock may prevent even modest legislative accomplishments in America, it’s fun to speculate what a king could get done in Washington. In episode five, after all, King Silas decrees universal health care with a word.