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Monday, March 16, 2009

Commercial Interruption: We just can't wait to watch "Kings"

Sometimes there's just too much television for one Channel Surfing blogger to handle. That's when we need a break to sit back, relax and indulge in some friendly back-and-forth (via email, of course — we don't actually like to speak to one another in person). Bloggers Malavika Jagannathan and Adam Reinhard were royally entertained by Sunday's night's debut of "Kings," and discuss the NBC drama's alternate-reality setting, espouse theories on the show's mythology, and take bets on how soon it will be cancelled.

This show knocked me on my ass. All I knew about "Kings" before it debuted Sunday was the handful of promos NBC ran: Ian McShane is the king of a powerful, modern-day country; a soldier saves the king's son during a battle; the king offers the soldier anything he wants. Seemed simple enough. And while the alternate-reality aspect was enough to draw me in, I figured there'd be some nice political back-stabbing and royal shenanigans to keep me amused.

But to paraphrase Queen Victoria, "We are not amused — we are friggin' blown away."

The two-hour bow of "Kings" was easily the most ambitious series premiere I've seen network TV conjure up, probably since "Lost." In fact, I'm a little surprised the damn thing made it on air in the first place. The setting — the made-up kingdom of Gilboa, which looks kinda like New York, hint hint — never receives much in the way of back story; viewers are expected to accept getting plopped down in the middle of this new universe. Luckily the smart script threw in enough intrigue and twists that I never found myself thinking, "Hang on, this is all rather silly." On the contrary, I became increasingly enthralled by the story of peasant David Shepherd, who honors his war hero dad by becoming a soldier, rescuing a POW prince and blowing up an enemy tank called The Goliath. (Oh yeah, Biblical references by the plenty, too. Because nothing screams "prime time hit" like allusions to the Old Testament.) The king, eternally grateful, makes the war hero a military big-wig, flirts with the idea of bumping him off once or twice, fumes when the kid makes moves on the princess, and generally plays him as a pawn to keep control of the kingdom.

The acting, writing, directing — all were enthralling, and have me anxiously awaiting next week's episode.

Malavika, what did you think of McShane's King Silas? And do you see this show maintaining its quality over the course of the season?

Malavika: I love Ian McShane. Honestly, I'd watch him even if he were a judge on American Idol. He's just one of those actors you can't ignore — just watch a couple of episodes of "Deadwood" or "Lovejoy" if you don't believe me — and his latest turn as King Silas is no different. He's likeable even as he's manipulative and megalomaniacal (it turns out he withdrew air support for his son's platoon, leading to his son's kidnapping and near death).

Now critics are split. I've read a number of reviews — this one from EW's Pop Watch, for example — that wonders what this show is all about and where it's going. Others praise McShane's performance, but decry what they call a thinly veiled soap opera. One critic especially took issue with the fact that all traces of pop culture have been erased from the show.

These are exactly the reasons I want to continue watching. I am completely intrigued by a world and a show I can't predict. Sure, it's promoted as a modern retelling of David and Goliath, but I'll be honest, I didn't relate or really pick up on the religious metaphor beyond the obvious. I almost wish the show's producers had underplayed this biblical theme — at least in the promotional material — because it distracts from the underlying brilliance of this dystopic world that looks so much like our own. It's hard to tell if the world of Gilboa and it's capital Shiloh is an alternate world or an alternate reality, a simple enough question to keep watching the show.

There's plenty in "Kings' to satisfy a number of different fans from the Shakespearean subplot to overthrow the king between Silas' son and the evil corporate brother-in-law to Christopher Egan's David Shepard's uncanny resemblance to Matt Damon with a hint of the late Heath Ledger (apparently there's something in the water in Australia that gives its actors that adorable squint).

My only worry is that this show comes from "Heroes" writer and producer Michael Green, a show that began with a similarly promising bang only to fizzle away. Should his previous work be held against him?

Adam: It's ... unfortunate ... that "Heroes" veteran Michael Green is an executive producer here, mostly because "Heroes" was the last network drama to give me this kind of buzz, and we all know how that's ended up. "Heroes" has become a joke, and the similarly one-plural-word titled "Kings" has many of the same trappings that could lead to disaster. For one thing, it takes itself a little too seriously. I'm not saying I want pop culture references either — in fact, my theory is "Kings" takes place in a near-future America that has been broken apart by civil war and divided into two, if not more, kingdoms, rendering all pertinent pop culture references moot — but the persistent heavy tone could wear on the show after a while, much like it did with "Heroes." And "Kings" doesn't even have a Hiro to shout "Yata!" and scrunch his face up all funny.

Another hit against the show is its adherence to the story of King David. Now, I could be wrong, seeing as how I'm getting all this information from Wikipedia, but so far "Kings" has been following the Biblical tale quite closely. First you have God withdrawing support from King Saul (much like the minister did with King Silas) and giving it to David. Then there's the David and Goliath thing. And Saul taking David under his wing, making him a commander of Saul's armies. Saul offers his daughter to David, which gets a slight twist in "Kings," but not much. There's even a bit where Saul's son Jonathon is supposedly in love with David, which mirrors Silas's son Jack being revealed as gay.

What does this mean for the future of the series? Well, spoiler alert, Old Testament David eventually becomes king after Saul and Jonathon are killed in battle. And on the Internet Movie Database listing for "Kings," McShane is only listed for 10 of the series' 12 filmed episodes. Could King Silas — and McShane — be beating an early retreat? Will the rest of the series — provided it lasts past 12 episodes — be adapted from the rest of the King David story? If so, are you worried about predictability?

Malavika: Clearly that A in religious studies in 7th grade was all for naught. I desperately hope that the producers of the show are slightly smarter than resorting to stealing their plotlines from the Bible — er — Wikipedia. But it's Hollywood, so you never know.

Despite this overt attempt to copy the Biblical story, the premiere offered shades of everything from "Children of Men" to Hamlet, a sign the show has promise to be more than just a "modern" retelling. My prediction is that if McShane's King Silas will be overthrown, faithful to the story of King David, he will surely have to make a return. Hopefully. Either way, I'm willing to see how this gamble plays off.

Malavika Jagannathan,; Adam Reinhard,

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