There are many things to marvel at in Kings, but perhaps greatest of all is the fact that it ever made it to air in the first place. I mean, a reimagination of the Biblical story of David set in a modern time almost but not quite like our own, filled with Shakespearean dialogue and set from the perspective of an attractive twenty-something? Who exactly is the target demographic here? (I mean, besides me, evidently.) Whoever greenlit this had to have been insane – and their insanity was a gift from Heaven itself.
Kings is quality television in the best sense of the term. Gorgeously and lovingly shot and directed, it is an intriguing, compelling story set in a richly imagined alternate universe where democracy never developed and God is not an abstraction but an accepted, though hardly beneficent, presence. Every shot is drenched with inventive ardor, every scene dripping with care and attention. It is magnificent in its scope and ambition.
This is all sounding rather ephemeral, but that is literally the only way to describe this show. Kings not only depicts, but also feels like a taste of a different era – not a bygone one, but one that is simultaneously, extraordinarily, identical and unrecognizable to our own. It demands elevated language, musical prose, to get even a pale sense of its flow and intensity.
Of course, Kings can be appreciated on a more concrete level as well. The acting is marvelous, with even the cast’s relative weak links turning in the performances of their lives. Ian McShane’s King Silas (Saul in the original) is indescribably masterful, the slightest twitch in his face turning him from adoring father making omelettes for breakfast to conflicted tyrant threatening his greatest friend. Dialogue which would sound horribly cheesy (omlette pun!) coming from a lesser performer is majestic and compelling in McShane’s utterly capable hands. Sebastion Stan, as Silas’s son Jack, is similarly adept at conveying an ocean of repressed emotion behind a tightening of the mouth or narrowing of the eyes. Even Chris Egan, who initially appeared to be only capable of expressing wide-eyed innocence, grew into the role of David, ultimately giving the character nuance and wrinkles and an indisputable darkness.
Kings is not afraid to get its hands dirty, diving almost gleefully into controversy and moral areas which cannot be described as anything but gray. As I mentioned before, no one questions God’s existence, but His existence is at no point taken to be proof of His goodness. God is presented as a complex, obscure figure, whose motives sometimes make sense, but more often than not seem arbitrary and almost petulant. Jack’s closeted homosexuality is neither condemned nor accepted, but rather treated as complex and difficult. Not a single character – at least those whom we are meant to relate to – condemns the nature of his desires. However, he is forced to face the (distasteful, though also experienced by the viewer) reality that the public, while unprejudiced in theory, would very likely reject the actuality of a gay king. The very idea of a monarchy, in fact, is also tossed around by the show. We tend to reject the idea of aristocratic rule almost instinctively, but Kings treats the possibility fairly, depicting the gamut from a society whose freedoms we ourselves might envy to one in fear of the whims of their unstable ruler.
There is a sense of tragedy to this television show. Within the show, we know from the source material that the idyllic stability depicted in the pilot must be destroyed by series end, that Silas’s nobility must be warped and David’s innocence polluted. But there is tragedy in watching the show itself (incidentally, it is available on Hulu until September 18). Because it was cancelled after one season, one cannot help but be aware while watching that all of this intelligence and creativity and enthusiasm and skill was cut off while it was still learning to crawl, that we are only receiving the merest taste of a feast of what-might-have-beens. Now, the creators clearly had some idea that they would not be getting the chance to continue, because the finale ends quite satisfyingly (though still, in what appears to be a bit of desperate hope, leaves ample openings for the series to continue). Yet, particularly as I got to the last few episodes, I grew more and more depressed as the screen before me grew ever more brilliant. By the end of the finale, I was impressed at the dexterity with which a bow was placed on the story, but frustrated that there was no more to it.
Now, I could get into a tirade here about the constricting nature of American television (if Matt Zoller Seitz had not already done so at Salon). But I prefer to see a half-full glass here, and to marvel at the fact that we got any Kings at all. A show this ambitious, breathtaking, and exceptional is rarely even conceived, let alone aired and given an entire season. We could mourn the death of Kings (and trust me, after that finale, it’s hard not to), but I prefer to give it a rich afterlife, to give it such a cult following that NBC curses every minute of Outsourced they leave on the air.