Last night, NBC premiered its alternate-history drama Kings with a two-hour pilot. Based loosely on the life of the Biblical King David, the series posited a modern-day New York as the capital of a kingdom at war, with David as the golden-haired war hero who would shake the rule of the reigning king in an archetypal story playing out the inevitable.
And inevitable it was. This show is a slickly-packaged Storytelling 101, feeding its audience one predictable twist after another. The moment you meet David’s rambunctious older brother, you know he’s doomed, and two scenes after someone mentions the woman the King gave up for the throne, we meet her; it’s that kind of show.
Equally predictable are the characters; from the African American Reverend to the Native American bloodthirsty general, from the princess feistily pushing a healthcare agenda to that sucker older brother, dozens of Central Casting stereotypes are present and accounted for. Chris Egan, as David, is the biggest stereotype of all, the Aryan poster boy for corn-fed guilelessness. He, of course, has no ambition of his own, but is anointed (like King Arthur or Buffy) by outside forces who can just see his destiny. In a pilot I’ll accept it, but he had better get ambitious in a hurry; I have no desire to watch this kid stumble around frowning manfully for an hour a week.
In the further adventures of Stock Character Bingo, look out for: crotchety yet helpful salt-of-the-earth security guards; the smooth and collected social secretary who can magically stay up 24 hours a day; and the mother who sees footage of the capital and tells her children to pay attention—”Your father died building this city.” (He did? I thought he went to live with a nice family on a farm!)
Some fare better. Ian McShane in particular makes the most of the admittedly meaty role of King Silas. Susanna Thompson, as Queen Rose, transcends her D-plot (oh heavens, a missing phone!) and coolly implies a seasoned manipulator. Most of her efforts go into handling son Jack, whose public skirt-chasing is a cover for his homosexuality—which Daddy McShane makes clear will have to go right back in the closet if Jack ever hopes to be King. It’s one of the more organic conflicts, and Sebastian Stan manages to make a compelling prince even as we understand exactly why King McShane has hung his hopes on David.
However, for all the as-you-know-Bob-ing that manages to fill two hours without really going anywhere, the series still seems thoughtfully executed; the pacing is workmanlike, the world-building thorough (the King’s monogram on the TV-studio doors is a two-tone NBC-esque butterfly). Some of the symbolism is spread on a little thick, particularly the oft-told tale of butterflies settling around King McShane’s head as a sign from God that his work should begin. It seems an attempt to make the symbol, mostly associated with Lisa Frank notebooks, into a manly emblem; in the pilot’s last few moments, however, the image is more literally applied. I’m not sure who looked more uncomfortable during those brief moments: Ian McShane, or me.
That said, the show has potential. With so many characters, the conflicts could get interestingly tangled, and as the pilot ended we were gearing up to see delegates from one of the other kingdoms, expanding the scope of the world. The characters might end up compelling, as well, especially if the show manages to pull away from the royal family (and the extremely milquetoast David) and dig into the machinations of court, which provided the pilot’s most interesting moments. I especially hope to see more of the woefully underused Wes Studi and Eamonn Walker, and a little less of David. I guess the bad news is that he’s the star of the show.
What did you think? Well-crafted or waste of time? (If you haven’t seen it yet, pull a Solomon and judge for yourself—NBC has the full pilot available on its website.)
Kings airs Sundays at 8pm on NBC.