Like many TV critics, I'm a bit prone to making fun of NBC's and the Ben Silverman Administration, whether it's for the mere existence of the American "Kath & Kim" or for the conviction that a weekly hour-long car commercial counts as programming or for the idea that turning five hours of primetime over to Jay Leno is anything other than a plea for help (and a slap in the face of Hollywood's creative community).

On the eve of NBC's premiere of "Kings," though, it seems only fair to step back and give Silverman a tip of the hat on this one. "Kings" may very well fail -- looking at NBC's track record this year, any success would be a huge surprise -- but it will be a failure of ambition and the current NBC brass can't claim that too often.

Based sometimes heavily and sometimes loosely on the Biblical story of King David, "Kings" is, in fact, the most ambitious new show of the 2008-09 TV season, be it network or cable. But ambition is scary for some viewers and "Kings" goes through a number of rough patches in its two-hour premiere, airing on Sunday (March 15). 

I'd urge viewers to stick with "Kings," because after watching the series' first four hours, I was left with the sense that something special may be developing.

[More after the break...]

Created by Michael Green ("Heroes"), "Kings" is a thorough piece of speculative fiction set in a world that's very much like our own. King Silas (Ian McShane) is the ruler of Gilboa, a kingdom whose newly constructed capital city of Shiloh is as modern as a Manhattan or Chicago. King Silas is married to Queen Rose (Susanna Thompson) and the father of Jack (Sebastian Stan) and Michelle (Allison Miller). A religious man, King Silas aims to be a just and principled ruler, but he's also waging a long and bloody war with the neighboring nation of Gath, a poorer territory under military control.

The war is weighing on the collective psyche of Gilboa, but hope comes from a single soldier, a commoner named David (Chris Egan), who defies orders to lead a daring raid that saves the King's son and culminates in the destruction of an enemy tank, the Goliath.

Do you see where this is going? Those familiar with the Book of Samuel -- the prophet's proxy in the story is the Reverend Ephram Samuels (Eamonn Walker) -- will certainly have some sense of where the story is going. David becomes a cult hero in Gilboa, but his popularity threatens both King Silas and his heir Jack, as well as the military industrial complex that relies on war to maintain the royal treasury. There's romance, political intrigue and divine plots afoot.

The Biblical parallels are initially the story's weakest element. Green can't dodge how central the Goliath confrontation is to David's mythos, but he can't quite sell it with a straight face. The minute you have David wielding a grenade and a rocket launcher and taking out a tank, you're straying into silliness and the subsequent headlines in the Gilboa newspapers -- "David Slays Goliath" -- rely on a cultural reference that wouldn't have existed in that context. Accept the lark and move on.

With Goliath out of the way, Green is able to refocus the story as a mixture of Biblical portent, Shakespearean overtones and a healthy dose of primetime soap opera, just to keep viewers engaged. The characters speak in a florid prose that reflects Green's mixture of influences and the diction is so consistent that even when a peasant woman (David's mom), says something like "People with destinies, things don't go well for them. They die old and unhappy or young and unfinished," it fits. Wherever and whenever Gilboa is, it's the sort of Mamet-ian or Milch-ian or Sorkin-ian place in which everybody talks funny, but they do it consistently.

Following that British model that is usually untenable for American television, the first four episodes of "Kings" have all been written by Green and directed by Francis Lawrence ("I Am Legend"). As Lawrence establishes a cinematic visual palette (from costume to production design, the show's technical credits are superb), Green sculpts the rules of his universe, building a complicated history that includes both Silas and his rise to the throne, but also the general evolution of Gilboa. Green, at least in theory, appears to know why people in Gilboa dress the way they dress, why they go to the ballet and how the nation's economy and political system operate. At some point, I hope there will be some explanation for the occasional suggestions that there are overlaps between our world and the show's world -- Franz Liszt makes for an odd constant -- but I'm perfectly happy to accept "Kings" as well-wraught fantasy.

"Kings" is a show about religion and God plays an active role in both the choices the characters make and also in the drama, as a code name for fate or destiny. Who the "God" in question actually is is a bit of a question. Based on casting and the specifics of the show's faith, it doesn't appear that it's the God of the Israelites per se. That the Biblical David is a specifically Jewish King isn't relevant to this tale, so don't expect the characters to stick to any strict Talmudic interpretation of the story. That "Kings" has spiritual things on its mind at all makes it a rare network offering.

As David, Egan is an effective centerpiece for the show. Although he's technically the lead, he's surrounded by so many exceptional actors that his job is to keep younger viewers involved and not get in the way of the showier supporting players. In that capacity, he's sturdy. The 24-year-old Aussie looks like a blend of Heath Ledger, a young Robert Redford and Ryan Phillippe and he has some of the latter star's slightly blank innocence. He has decent chemistry with the fresh-faced Miller and he's well-contrasted by Stan, whose intensity sets up several early character revelations.

Even if nothing else in "Kings" worked, merely having McShane on board would be a reason to watch. In short order, Green has crafted a character who shifts from tragic hero to malevolent despot from scene to scene and McShane has no trouble going from wounded and sympathetic to threatening and dangerous With a slightly clipped American-ish accent, he accentuates the eloquence when Green's dialogue is good and covers a multitude of sins when Green gets hackneyed. McShane's character is prone to molologuing, but the actor keeps rising to the level of his scene partners. He's great with Thompson and Dylan Baker, better in his scenes with Walker and when Brian Cox shows up in the second week for a "Deadwood" reunion, there will be great rejoicing in some circles.

"Kings" is slow to unfold and it isn't the most inviting of shows. Green and Lawrence plunge viewers into an unfamiliar terrain and there's a hope that you'll be smart enough to figure out what's going on, but maybe not smart enough to pick the conceit to pieces. For much of the two-hour premiere, I was impressed and interested, but I wasn't emotionally involved. After the third hour, I was engaged and ready to move forward. After four hours, I was concerned that the show find an audience and continue to move forward. 

NBC has taken a number of trashy risks this season that have failed. "Kings" is a high-quality risk and a risk worth taking. 

 

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