Critic's Notebook: The 10th Anniversary of NBC's 'Kings' and the Death of the Ambitious Broadcast Drama

Michael Green's pseudo-modern retelling of the biblical story of David didn't last long, but it remains a complex drama with more ambition than anything broadcast TV has attempted for years.
NBC/Photofest

Ten years ago tonight, NBC premiered a drama that no broadcast network would even consider making today.

Kings failed and failed aggressively, one of the more expensive one-and-done duds in recent TV history, so it's hard for me to lament the kind of trepidation that would prevent a network from trying anything like Kings now. But lament I do.

At its best, Kings was shockingly good and completely without parallel in the broadcast landscape. At its worst, Kings was still a work of boundless and audacious ambition, an astoundingly big swing coming from a corner of the medium that was in the process of learning to become risk-adverse and timid.

As it stands now, ABC, CBS, NBC and even once-bold Fox have allowed their drama slates to become shades of beige, uninteresting swaths of Chicago/New York/Los Angeles (or Atlanta if they're feeling WILD) procedurals, cookie-cutter mythology shows and increasingly degraded spinoffs and reboots and uncredited copies of properties that passed their most successful sell-by dates years ago. What passes for ambition on broadcast TV at the moment is Fox tackling Justin Cronin's unadaptable The Passage in a way that removed 95 percent of what was most challenging about it or CBS trying a cable-style interlocking narrative with The Red Line, but only with the careful caveat that it's an "event series," relieving the story of having the pressure to continue in the future. That same strategy led to three seasons of American Crime, a series that didn't lack for thematic and intellectual ambition even if it consistently lacked for viewers and only survived as long as it did because of ABC's charitable benevolence.

With the exception of The CW, which gets ambition points for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Jane the Virgin (comedies for awards purposes, if such semantics matter to you), the broadcast networks have simply decided that aspiration is the domain of cable and streamers — entities that can claim they're doing things for critical love and Emmy attention and don't necessarily need to admit when nobody's watching.

I come here not to bury network TV's collective drama developers, but rather to sing a chorus of "Hallelujah" that we ever lived in a world that allowed a TV show as strange as Kings to exist at all and to offer a reminder that even if it failed on-air, Kings still exists in DVD form for people who don't fear physical media. It remains a marvelous thing and, I'd like to think, an inspirational thing for any member of the creative community who believes that broadcast TV is an infertile concrete jungle in which nice things cannot grow.

Children gathered around our cyber-campfire, perhaps blissfully unaware that "broadcast networks" are a thing at all, surely will not recall what Kings even was.

To ye I say, Kings was Michael Green's retelling of the biblical story of King David. Before Green became 2017's top screenwriter thanks to Logan and Blade Runner 2049 and Alien: Covenant, he was a veteran of Heroes and Everwood and somehow got NBC to buy in on transposing an ancient tale of faith and wisdom and divine provenance against an alternate present set in the Manhattan-esque Kingdom of Gilboa, ruled over by King Silas (Ian McShane).

The characters all spoke in heightened monologues that blended Shakespeare and the Old Testament, even as they drove around a skyscraper-filled city in modern transportation, watched versions of contemporary TV and, in the pilot's pivotal moment, young soldier David Shepherd (Christopher Egan) — see what they did there? — proved his mettle standing up to the latest technological invention from the rival Republic of Gath, a tank classified as part of the "Goliath" class. No slingshot-wielder he, this particular David slew this particular Goliath with a rocket launcher.

Not for the faint of pretentious heart — and surely Kings has a pretense of epic grandeur, though "pretentious" needn't be inherently negative — Kings was described by The Hollywood Reporter's reviewer as "royal mush" and "painfully earnest" and "unintended farce."

The review is not completely wrong, at least not in the middle critique. Kings is absolutely painfully earnest, or at least that would be a way of describing it. I'd prefer "thoroughly committed," or at least "unfettered by any sense of irony." If Kings works, it works because Green and Francis Lawrence, director of the first four hours, take it astonishingly seriously. They buy into the speculative reality of this world and treat it without so much as a wink or a nudge.

With its anniversary approaching, I rewatched those first four hours to see if Kings still holds up a decade later.

It does.

On a superficial level, it's a glorious show. The pilot was, at the time, notoriously expensive and Lawrence's physical world-building is marvelous, an intriguing mixture of New York settings, carefully selected and architecturally provocative interiors and CGI embellishments that make Gilboa have tangible grounding while also feeling alien to any urban environment you'd completely recognize.

It isn't dystopic, though. This is a benevolently ruled kingdom in which the powers that be prioritized verdant outdoor spaces, striking new construction and reverence for traditions. It's science fiction in a way that we rarely interpret science fiction and you can easily see how a mind that would have generated a Blade Runner sequel would have speculated in this direction as well.

The cast is exemplary, each actor attacking Green's stylized dialogue with relish. McShane, in his first regular TV role after Deadwood, is every inch a king, the very model of morally ambiguous regal verbosity. He's surrounded by one character actor after another capable of holding their own, be it a stern-yet-cautious Wes Studi, a marvelously ruined Brian Cox, an expertly snide Dylan Baker or a morally righteous Eamonn Walker. The outsize theatricality of the premise is matched by the sensation that every exchange with these veterans could be playing out on a stage and worth whatever price you'd pay for the ticket. Susanna Thompson, as Silas' manipulative queen, has often been good elsewhere, but has never been better.

As David, Egan has a bland charm reminiscent of a young Robert Redford. He's a character you're supposed to be able to project pure-hearted ideals onto and Egan is perfect for that, matched by Allison Miller's plucky radiance as the kingdom's crusading princess. And Sebastian Stan, basically presaging the sort of big-hearted, but strong-willed characters he's excelled at playing since, should have been an immediate star out of this project. Kings also could or should have launched the second act of Macaulay Culkin's career, as he has a very memorable guest appearance.

What primarily stands out in Kings is how full of ideas it is.

This is a point I've made before, but will make again: Religious advocacy groups like to complain about how Hollywood is a town of heathens and call for hollow boycotts whenever something is critical of their creed and then they completely ignore shows that are devotedly about religion and faith. The reality is that they don't want Hollywood to respect religion and faith, they want Hollywood to respect their version of religion and faith, without the pragmatism and complexity that accompany most people's actual experiences with spirituality. Don't pretend you want more shows about faith if all you want is more Touched by an Angel.

The world of Gilboa is one guided by signs and divine blessings, a world where miracles happen and are honored and where God is an active day-to-day presence in most people's lives. Nobody says the name of a specific religion and sometimes characters have sex or do drugs and so heaven knows you'd never get the Parents Television Council or Catholic League to offer an endorsement for a show like Kings. But it's hard to imagine a show more "painfully earnest" about showing the way people grapple with doctrine, with observance, with fundamentalism, with doubt. The show's questioning of how religion conveys power, how it compromises or enhances secular power and how it comes into conflict with interests of commerce and government is sincere, never treated as an afterthought. More than any other reason, that's why no network would make a show like Kings today. It's actually remarkable that NBC was willing to make Kings just a couple years after The Book of Daniel, an Aidan Quinn drama sabotaged by advocacy groups because it dared to portray Christianity as imperfect and yet aspirational.

Just on the secular side, Kings is an examination of the cult of celebrity, the dangers of autocracy and the choices that anybody in leadership must make in the name of justice and the common good. It's substantive stuff and also romantic and dramatic and even, in odd moments, funny.

If I'd had the time, I'd happily have revisited the entire first season of Kings. Instead, I have to watch broadcast dramas about an apartment complex where everybody loves each other, a big court case and a nymphomaniac blind detective. I'd rather be revisiting Gilboa and its flocks of majestic monarch butterflies.