Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Annointed by who exactly?

Warning: many, many spoilers.

Kings' two-hour premiere was a retelling of the Biblical story of Samuel, Saul and David. The most interesting thing about the big-budget kick off was how it deviated from the story, and how it deliberately tried to piss off some of its potential core audience.

If you look at the pilot as nothing more than two hours of television, it was fairly solid, but not without flaws. The opening hour was quite strong, introducing the quasi-New York city of Shiloh, capital of Gilboa. Gilboa was unified from three warring states by its current king Silas Benjamin, played by Ian "Awesome" McShane, also known as Al Fuckin' Swearengen. (He's been renamed from Saul for no reason I can discern.) He's surrounded by a group of advisors that includes enough solid character actors to guarantee some good sub-West Wing level political intrigue. (In truth, it was nice to see a political setting where the characters are supposed to be flawed and tyrannical. Unlike on Battlestar Galatica, there's no attempt to pretend that the leaders are democratic.) If anything carries this show, it'll be McShane. He's the best actor in the bunch, with the most complicated character.

Not too long into the program and we meet David Shepherd, youngest of seven sons, auto mechanic, all American all Gilboan boy. In other words, he is boring. While the rest of his family is watching the dedication of a rebuilt Shiloh as the new capital, David has to mind the family auto shop business, and repairs the car of Reverend Samuels. Samuels significantly gives David a broken watch with the kingdom's butterfly symbol on the back, and touches David on the forehead with one thumb. Which would be creepy if it didn't have deep religious significance. No, wait, it's still kind of creepy.

Jump ahead two years and David's joined the army to fight the neighbourhing nation of Gath, which has a whole lot of tanks called Goliaths. After some soldiers are captured and taken prisoner, David sneaks out at night, rescues the two hostages, and blows up a couple of Goliaths for good measure. He has, of course, rescued the king's son Jack. David becomes a hero, is feted in the capital, is promoted, meets the king, his daughter and our other principal characters. Machinations ensue, and there's a sub-plot about a lost cell phone, and Jack possibly being court martialed, and David dances with and smooches the princess. The war with Gath ends, starts again, and finally ends again when David histrionically walks onto the battlefield carrying sheets soaked in his just-deceased brother's blood, calling for peace and brotherhood and blah blah blah.

At the closer, Silas is facing rebellion from within, because his nasty corporate brother in law wants the war to continue, so he can keep making profits (he runs Crossgen, which I assume is intended to be a Haliburton analogue). The brother in law also plots with Jack for a generational coup. Meanwhile, Silas is pissed when he's told by Samuels that he's lost the favour of God, and sees butterflys landing on David's head as a living crown – exactly the sign that showed Silas was to be king years before.

The story, as a story, mostly works. There are a few false notes.

The battle scenes are dreadful, filmed on the cheap and without a hint of the realism that pretty much every audience expects post-Band of Brothers. The rows of Goliath tanks just sit there, a few hundred yards from the Gilboan lines. Even I know that's stupid. Can't you just smash them all to bits with bombs or artillery if they're nicely lined up for you like that?

The romance between David and Silas's daughter was reasonably done well for such an obvious hook, but her role as an earnest would-be health care reformer is dull. Jack is much more interesting. He's a deeply closeted gay man, a soldier and a leader who acts like spoiled Eurotrash when he's off the battlefield. One of the best scenes (in which Ian McShane gets to display his trademark awesomeness) has Silas confront his son: he knows Jack is gay, and he doesn't care. But he does demand that Jack hide it, crush it out of his life, or he'll never be king. It's in many ways just as savage as if Silas had been painted as an out and out homophobe. He's consumed with the need for power, and he expects his son to destroy everything that matters to him in pursuit of the same goal. There's also more than a little textual support in the Bible for a gay relationship between David and Saul's son Jonathan. Though I doubt the show will go that direction.

One of the worst moments is when David breaks down and tells his dying brother that he's a coward. First, it's a cliche and second, it's obviously not true. Surrendering to overwhelming force is not cowardice (he was facing two tanks alone and in no man's land) especially when you've just finished a solo rescue mission. The supposed cowardice and David's role as a peacemaker is also at odds with the Bible, in which David is a warrior who rises to prominence by wiping out the Israelites' enemies, not by making speeches to them. Legitimate update, or boring and preachy? So far the execution suggests the latter.

Still, there's enough decent writing and strong acting to keep me watching for at least another episode. Whether the show will appeal to its potential core audience is another question.

Biblical epics and retellings have always worked well in America, which is freakishly churchgoing compared to every other wealthy western country. Religious TV programming, including as Touched by an Angel, Joan of Arcadia and 7th Heaven, has been successful in recent years. I can't imagine a program that mixes elements from each benefits from poking the religious right in the eye with a speech endorsing evolution (delivered by Silas apropos of a chicken-or-egg question over breakfast). Maybe the producers intend to appeal to religious moderates only.

Evolution aside, there's a big difference between showing bad behaviour in Kings and bad behaviour in a modern Christian family. Hollywood has waffled between cloying depictions of Christian families (see the deeply disturbing 7th Heaven) and attacks. The Book of Daniel was not so much a poke in the eye as a kick to the groin of the religious right wing. It was also painfully obvious that it was intended as such, so that between the religion and the attacks on same, it wasn't any fun to watch for a poor old atheist.

What Kings has going for it is that murder, adultery, warfare and backstabbing here are rooted in the original text. The Book of Daniel or Joan of Arcadia had fluffy, loving, hippy-style Jesus and God interactions. The Old Testament, as a source, has more dramatic potential. It has wrath and killing and lust and vengeance.

Which makes for better TV.

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