When it comes to the classics of the page, modern day is the new black with far flung tales ranging from ancient Greece to period England lining up to be given the 21st century makeover. Still, in these increasingly PC times it takes some balls (or someone quite tapped depending how you look at it) to commit to something as ambitious as NBC's Kings (Saturdays, 8pm EST), an adaptation of the biblical story of King David transposed to a fictional kingdom that strikingly resembles present day America.
Here the country is Gilboa, ruled by King Silas (Ian McShane), whose population is wearily waging in a military campaign against its neighbor Gath. At the frontline a daring rescue of hostages, one of which happens to be Prince Jack (Sebastian Stan), sees idealistic young soldier David (Christopher Egan) dispatch a Goliath tank with an improvised hand grenade. It’s a purely instinctive act of blind panic that thanks to some timely clickity-click becomes a propaganda picture for the ages, mustering the will of the people to mount the required final offensive. Eager to make use of his people’s newfound champion, Silas summons David to court where he is both seduced by and instructed in the various uses of power.
It’s a rich and stirring blend of the classical and the contemporary, the old and the new. In terms of culture and technology we’re largely here and now. In terms of psychology and protocol, we’re way back when. Much is made, as was right at the time, of mysticism, with God’s assumed wishes, here represented by Eamonn Walker’s reverend Samuels with whom Silas clashes frequently. Sign and portents are valued on par with logic and reason, with the king’s many visions (the Monarch butterfly being the most significant) engrained into the national psyche as a part of documented history. Indeed a constant presence of Silas’ shoulder is the royal scribe who with a wave of his Blackberry stylus can strike from the record anything that the king desires to be stricken.
At court the currency is favor, which as is customary is bought and sold like so much chattel, and the palace of Shiloh – a city built out of the ruins of war – is a rogues gallery of scheming opportunists and lamented idealists where allies and enemies rise and fall likes the tide. As Silas, McShane is of course magnificent, his straight back and world-weary brow bringing great weight to the flowery, almost Shakespearian prose and in terms of his pragmatic approach, his callous impulses (don’t cross him, he will kill you), and his sardonic sense of humor, there is more than a little bit of Al Swearengen in Gilboa’s great king.
At his side is Susanna Thompson as Queen Rose, an arch manipulator who understands that successful rule is a simple matter of PR, but who so far only serves to interrupt the more interesting plot strands to shuffle everyone off to the ballet. Under her is Princess Michelle (Allison Miller), a reformer of sorts who catches David’s eye, but so far is maddeningly vanilla. Much as he did in Oz for six seasons Eamonn Walker deftly blends righteous indignation with the petty jealousies of man with a character that invites much promise. Even better is Prince Jack, a partying playboy and conflicted closet case whose flashy grin and sparkling eyes can barely contain the dark rage mustering behind them. Looking to focus that anger and mold it for his own ends is scheming industrialist William Cross (Dylan Baker), the king’s brother-in-law, slighted when peace was made and out for retribution.
Really the only weak link is tragically the one cog that’s most crucial, Egan’s David Shepard. Tasked with a dramatic arc of wide-eyed idealism potentially baited into moral bankruptcy by the thralls of power it remains to be seen if Egan really has the chops to pull it off. It’s not that he can’t act, but when placed shoulder to shoulder with the likes of McShane the shortcomings are lit up like a Christmas tree evoking images of, and we hate to say it, Hayden Christian in Star Wars. As it is, surrounded by veteran character actors the likes of Walker, Baker and Wes Studi as the king’s enforcer, he can be carried. But if the story goes according to scripture he will soon have to take center stage and much of the show will rest on his shoulders. Still, for right now this is some of the most original and involving drama around. Long may it reign.
Starring: Ian McShane, Christopher Egan, Susanna Thompson, Allison Miller, Sebastian Stan, Eamonn Walker, Dylan Baker, Wes Studi, Sarita Choudhury
Created By: Michael Green