March 15th, 2009
The reasons for Kings’ failure to garner anything above a downright abysmal debut on Sunday night are a literal smorgasbord of criteria. Originally planned as a midseason replacement for ER before that show has its run extended when its ratings stabilized early in the season, Kings instead gets a mid-season launch at the worst possible time. Viewers haven’t taken to any of NBC’s new shows, and even its returning shows are struggling to stay afloat, so there’s no “What’s on NBC tonight?” to drive people to a new series. Airing on Sundays without a lead-in is yet another punishment, but unlike a show like Dollhouse, which can count on some substantial Friday evening DVR use, one doesn’t feel like Sunday night is bound to get the same level of uptick. And with Jay Leno set to take over five hours of primetime, the chances of the show garnering strong enough ratings to get itself a second season were slim to none even before the rather embarassing numbers came in.
But let’s throw that out the window for a moment and consider that, while up until last evening this was the only context for Kings in my mind, giving the show’s pilot a chance creates a substantially different reaction. While at its core the show emerges as a sort of monarchical soap opera, there is something in the show’s setting and its subtle compexities which gives it an air of something deserving of more than four million viewers, or at the very least a spot on a network where four million viewers would be considered a success. Led by Ian McShane, the cast is up to the challenge of getting through a lot of exposition in these two hours, setting the stage for an epic war that seems more than vaguely familiar the more we go along, but with more than enough shades of grey in characters’ motivations to create the kind of volatile instability that could sustain an audience.
Unfortunately, it’s an audience that didn’t even show up the first time around.
The moment at the end of “Goliath” where David is literally crowned by Butterflies is one of the most nauseating pieces of television cinema I’ve seen all year (as pretty as it was), primarily because it ignores what to that point had been but an undercurrent of contrivance and predictability. The cuteness of the series is something which needs to be managed very carefully: pitting David, a young and naive soldier who fights for his country, against the megatanks known as Goliaths works only as long as it feels like an organic allegory and not a forced framework through which to view the series. For the most part, the episode balanced it quite well: while the David vs. Goliath headline creates his instant celebrity, it becomes clear that he is less operating against the tanks and moreso against the forces which are out of his control, the ones embodied in both King Silas and in the bureaucracy which surrounds him. Those multiple meanings came out in the pilot, which was necessary for the series’ stability – when David stood in front of the Goliath for the second time, after having acknowledged that his bravery the first time out was more of an optical illusion and a lucky grenade explosion, it was part of the allegory but also visually and emotionally powerful. When the butterfly story came full circle, meanwhile, it was anything but, one of those end of pilot nods to the future which feels fake, outside of the realm of reality.
Everything else in the world of Kings has an explanation, has some sort of purpose. While there are many twists and turns in the episode, ranging from revelations about people’s private lives (Silas’s mistress and bastard child, Jack’s sexuality) to revelations of political allegiance (Silas being behind the initial kidnapping, Jack plotting with his Uncle), all of them boil down to concepts of power and control. Silas’ power is undeniable, and expansive: he has control of the media, with the ability to keep photos of his son and daughter out of the press, and there is this presumption that he is manipulating just about everything. At the same time, he is held accountable by his relationship with the weapons manufacturer (Crossgen) that forms the foundations of his reign, creating the need for slightly more intuitive ways of getting what he really wants, if we have actually established such a baseline at this point.
That personification of Silas is what really keeps the series afloat, primarily because Ian McShane is just downright great in this role. I’ll admit that my Deadwood: Complete Series set is at home unwatched on my dresser, but nonetheless I can appreciate how McShane is able to walk that fine line between opportunistic and optimistic. He sees in David, consistently, an opportunity: he sees a young man who has a no-nonsense attitude about all of this, whose moment of bravery could be used and taken advantage of as long as he is able to manipulate him. He welcomes him into his home, allows him to spend time with his daughter, and decides against shooting him before he reaches that line because he sees he can use him – of course, as it becomes clear that his reign is in jeopardy, he also sees someone who could curry favour and be his eventual successor, the David to his Goliath if you will. It all makes for a really interesting character study, one which gets the most play in an episode like this one.
The rest of it, meanwhile, is a little rough around the edges. I buy into the world because of Silas’ role in it all, which is endearing from those first moments of his speech at Shiloh, the capital of Gilboa, but David’s quick ascension is a bit tougher to see through. I like the actor, Christopher Egan, well enough, as he does bring that combination of boyish charm and naive innocence to the proceedings, but the problem is how quickly all of this happens. I like the idea of destiny playing a role, with his chance encounter with Reverend Samuals serving as a precursor to his eventual position at the ball, but his relationship with Michelle in particular comes together much too quickly and easily in true pilot fashion. While the episode did some good things to keep him grounded (I thought the first piano scene was quite good with this, as was creating some tinfoil swans for the Royal Guard), at the same time he’s been swept up in something with such speed as to feel far less interesting as a piece of television.
It’s not as if we only got the view of the naive innocent into this world, the outsider looking in – he is thrown right into a world we understand better than he does, and while the universe is devoid of brands it’s actually as a result far more familiar for those of us with any background in stories of succession and the like. For this reason, I left wanting a little less of David’s brush with heroism and bravery and more with young Jack, who as the stilted heir was given little to work with, more or less treated as if he were Chuck Bass and this were Gossip Girl. It’s not an original charactertization, but if that’s the case they need to work even harder to make it work. Instead, it felt like the most Soap Opera-esque character because there was nothing to balance it – sure, Silas has a mistress and a bastard son, but that can be seen not just as a conveniently soapy idea and instead as a coping mechanism that expands the character.
On a whole, the show achieves the latter status: while it’s not trying to necessarily evolve to the point of ridding itself of soap opera, considering the relationship between David and Michelle and the pending drama of parenthood and succession, all of it is espoused in an environment that feels quite complex. The clash between modern conveniences and almost medieval principles of warfare, where the fight with Gath to the North is heavily depersonalized and viewed less as a national crisis and more as a constant nuisance, feels as novel as it should, and the striking visual imagery of the show as a whole gives the right impression. It’s a show that grows on you as you watch it, less because it’s doing something fundamentally different but more because it’s doing something familiar in a way that it’s not often done, especially on a network.
It is, of course, just a bit too different to survive: chances are some might be turned off by its setting, its forced distance from our own reality, and that initial puny sampling could shrink even more in the weeks to come. It feels like another Kidnapped, another NBC show which was doing something somewhat different from your traditional series but couldn’t get an audience and was forced onto DVD. I feel Kings will meet the same fate in time, but in the meantime I’ll stick around – I don’t have a huge amount of questions, but I feel as if the show has enough intriguingly situated answers ahead for me to fill in the questions for a while.
- Most distracting thing about the show, which is entirely Ellen Degeneres’ fault – when she was filming in New York a few years ago, she used the set the show is using for the General Assembly of sorts. As a result, I kept imagining Ellen every time we saw the super-serious boardroom scenes, and it pulled me out every single time.
- I am not up on my Biblical stories enough to really appreciate it, but it’s good to hear that the series is paying attention to the story in drafting its character, and I’m curious to see if the storyline’s progression shows the Bible to be a source of potential projections or simply a launching off point. Even from my light reading, it’s nothing that this episode didn’t already lay out with its heavy-handed final shot and its intrigue regarding succession.
- Michael Green churns out a lot of flowery dialogue in the episode, and to be honest it never really affected me – yes, I noticed some lines in particular yearning to be more poetic than they probably were, and I agree with Alan Sepinwall that Egan in particular struggled with that dramatic speech against the Tanks, but for the most part it skirted by in the vein of the show’s multi-faceted approach to this reality.