NBC's 'Kings' aims for TV royalty

BY RACHEL HANDLER
Daily Arts Writer
Published March 22, 2009

"Kings"
Sundays at 8 p.m.
NBC

3 out of 5 stars

“Kings,” NBC’s overly ambitious attempt at retelling the biblical story of David and Goliath, is essentially a soap opera dressed in prime-time drama’s clothing. The plot is complex and occasionally baffling, making the rewind function on a DVR more necessary than ever. But its allegorical overtones and resonating themes eventually make it something more than just arcane melodrama.

The two-hour premiere introduced an alternate reality, a sort of pseudo-New York City in which King Silas Benjamin (Ian McShane, “Deadwood”), ruler of the nation of Gilboa, unveils his newly built capital city of Shiloh. Silas continuously waxed poetic about the moment God told him he would be king, and a group of butterflies landed on his head in the shape of a crown (viewers were beaten over the head with this symbolism throughout the premiere).

All of a sudden, it was two years later, and viewers were introduced to newly war-torn Gilboa through the eyes of David Shepherd (Christopher Egan, “Resident Evil: Extinction”), the aptly named populist hero with a heart of gold, a love for his country and an uncanny resemblance to Matt Damon.

David and his brother Eli (Michael Mosley, “The Insurgents”) are Gilboa’s answer to white trash — the siblings initially lived at home with their mother and ran a car repair business out of their garage. The two are now ridiculously moral and good-natured soldiers fighting against the northern nation of Gath. When Jack, King Silas’s whiny playboy of a son (Sebastian Stan, “Law & Order”), was taken hostage by Gath’s soldiers, David defied his superiors’ orders and ran haphazardly across the border into the looming headlights of Gath’s tank, predictably named Goliath.

David was rewarded handsomely by King Silas, who threw him a lavish banquet, allowed him to date his daughter Michelle (Allison Miller, “17 Again”), and gave him a shitty apartment in Shiloh where he’ll work as army liaison to the press. Naturally, country boy David was uncomfortable with all the attention and all them crazy city folk, and he spent the rest of the episode either silent or enigmatically poetic. Conflict ensued when it became apparent that not everyone in Gilboa is on David’s side, including Silas himself.

In any other time or place, this show may have been solely ridiculous. And in some ways, it still is. The premiere got off to a slow start, but divulged shocking plot developments at an alarmingly rapid rate during the second hour. We found out within a matter of minutes that Jack is gay and Silas has been having an affair for years, has an illegitimate son and married his wife for the financial support of her brother — who’s now refusing to let him end the war with Gath.

The head-spinning duplicity of every single character is enough to make our own reality seem almost inviting. And unfortunately, the most cringe-inducing moment occurred in the very last scene, when David found himself surrounded by — you guessed it — a group of butterflies, descending upon his head in the shape of a crown while Silas looks on in horror. “Kings” manages to simultaneously echo Shakespeare, the "Bible" and “The O.C.”

And somehow, in 2009, “Kings” manages to feel relevant. It has all of the right allegorical ingredients: There’s the nameless, faceless enemy and the completely inexplicable war; there’s the young idealist demonstrating the futility of fighting to stop a war that’s being waged for all of the wrong reasons; there’s the bright, initially flawless leader with dark secrets and complicated interpersonal relationships; and finally, there’s the premiere’s ending, which hinted at a sharp and protracted economic downturn for Gilboa.

Despite its soapy overtones and potentially outlandish plot, “Kings” runs deep, hitting some of the right nerves. Its intellectually developed characters, oft-believable dialogue and timely subject matter save it from being too much of a guilty pleasure.