March 15, 2009


The royal treatment: NBC's "Kings" is a rare and beautiful thing -- cinematic, poetic, ambitious television on prime time network TV. (Heather Havrilesky, Mar. 15, 2009, Salon)

"Kings" creator Michael Green isn't shy about blessing his characters with nearly supernatural powers: Regular country boy and mechanic David Shepherd is visited by an odd religious figure with an expensive car that needs fixing, along with some hints that Shepherd is destined for greatness. The next time we see him, Shepherd is dodging behind enemy lines to singlehandedly rescue a handful of war hostages, one of whom turns out to be King Silas' son, Jack (Sebastian Stan). Everything Shepherd does is earnest and humble, yet perfectly timed to bestow adoration and glory on his shoulders.

In other words, Shepherd isn't another deeply flawed, conflicted hero, the likes of which have populated our TV dramas for the past decade. But for all of his unrealistic good luck and perfection, Shepherd feels like an unexpected breath of fresh air among the more angst-ridden protagonists of the small screen. Sure, he makes mistakes and stumbles on his words and feels outmatched by his suddenly posh and self-important surroundings. But just as flawed, conflicted heroes once made the white-hat-crowned good guys of the '50s and '60s look hopelessly one-dimensional, David's simple purity makes all of the carefully invented weaknesses of his fellow TV heroes seem oddly formulaic and outdated. As the world looks poised to sink into economic and spiritual quicksand of its own making, this is the hero we're in the mood for: humble, sharp, self-reliant, but also passionately inspired to heed his calling, blessed with some palatable mix of jittery boyishness and determined swagger. Picture Matt Damon's first confused but still efficient moments in "The Bourne Identity" -- only this time, the fate of an entire kingdom rests in his hands, and God is on his side!

That sounds awful, I realize, as do all of the words devoted to "Kings" in its press releases and on its Web site, where the drama is described as "an epic story of greed and power" and "a contemporary retelling of the timeless tale of David and Goliath." But such publicist-scripted prose doesn't come close to doing justice to the romantic sweep and scope of Green's creation.

And that's before we even start to tackle Ian McShane's incredible turn as King Silas. Of course, if King Silas were as scheming and evil as Shepherd is heroic and special, we'd be plunged back into the dark ages of kings and knights and cowboys and Indians. Instead, McShane bestows on Silas the same haunted edge that made Al Swearengen the poetically tragic and endlessly transfixing demigod of HBO's prematurely guillotined "Deadwood." [...]

[M]cShane brings such a palpable mix of swagger and sweetness to King Silas that his character rivals the most complicated, touching yet terrifying patriarchs to inhabit any screen, small or large. Think of Robert Duvall as "The Great Santini" or Jack Nicholson in "Heartburn" (or even "The Shining"). McShane is just as convincing when Silas is kissing his children and calling them "puppy" as he is when Silas is threatening his foes, with his wild eyes and that predatorial set to his teeth. McShane savors each line or spits it out with brute force, but either way, he absolutely owns the script. He moves like a shark or a teddy bear, depending on his mood. Even those viewers who find the notion of aristocracy disturbing will accept this man as a king. McShane's Silas was born to nurture and protect a struggling nation!

But McShane also works magic to make King Silas' political pragmatism and his ferocity look undeniably appealing, even under the harshest circumstances. Take this uncharacteristically blunt lecture Silas delivers to his son, Jack, who up until now assumed his father didn't know anything about his sexual leanings: "What you do at night, with your boys, after your show of skirt-chasing, is a disgrace. If you were my second son I wouldn't care, but for a king it's not possible. Not possible! We give up what we want when we want power. Believe me. Now you want to show me you have the heart to be king? Show me you can control it. Wrestle it to the ground, numb it with ice, but you cannot be what God made you, not if you mean to take my place. Celebrate, Jack. It's what you're good at." Silas doesn't have personal or moral feelings about his son's sexuality, but he almost seems to enjoy informing him, in a seething tone, that who he is, by nature, is impractical if he wants to wield power on a public stage. Again, in another actor's hands, this scene might come off as overly cruel or melodramatic, but McShane hisses and growls and scares the living daylights out of us, and we're left wanting more.

As difficult as it should be to get wrapped up in such a lofty mythical tale, the gorgeous art direction and stunning cinematography of "Kings" draw us in. Every shot is clean and pretty, or stark and bold, with breathtaking CGI-aided views of the sparkling city of Shiloh, where Silas and the royal family live, punctuated by extreme close-ups of Shepherd's nervous smile or King Silas' piercingly confident visage. The creative imagery used to signify the divine -- butterflies or flocks of pigeons or black clouds dramatically parting to reveal a ray of sunshine -- are so beautifully shot that they conjure the ethereal. There's a perfectionist in the mix here, either director Francis Lawrence ("I Am Legend") or creator Green or both. Someone had exacting standards and such a clear idea of how they wanted this drama to look that the results are just incomparable, in terms of modern TV shows.

Don't know if anyone else had the same reaction, but I found both Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven to be terribly distracting on first viewing because they play so fast and loose with history. But if you watch them a second time as if they were sci-fi/fantasy instead of historical epics the underlying films and their stories are quite good. If you're borrowing the story of David but reluctant to do it straight, the more stylized the better.

-REVIEW ARCHIVES: Kings (Metacritic)

But "Kings" may be too campy for some, not campy enough for others.

"Dynasty" didn't weigh down its audience with a lot of allegory about, say, the moral exhaustion of the Israeli-Arab conflict. One kingdom calls a key city the Port of Prosperity; its rival says no, it's the "Port of Sorrow," which sounds like kind of argument you'd hear in Jerusalem today.

The show sparkles with imagination, though, as you try to figure out just how our reality differs from the kingdom's, as you gaze upon a digitally-enhanced New York City (the king's palace is the Apthorp building on the Upper West Side - maybe he lives in Nora Ephron's old apartment?) that suggests the terrible mysteries of power.

McShane can command legions by floating an eyebrow. More than a few viewers will come away thinking, "I know he's evil, but at least he knows what he's doing."

I'm just gonna throw it out there - Silas for king in 2012? At least we wouldn't have to worry about any more election seasons.

Kings is an old parable with a modern twist (ALESSANDRA STANLEY NEW YORK TIMES)
The story of David works so well as a modern parable of power and corruption that it seems remarkable that there aren’t more biblical adaptations around. So many Shakespeare plays and even Homer’s works have been turned into popular modern-day plays, novels and movies. The Taming of the Shrew inspired Kiss Me Kate, as well as the Heath Ledger comedy 10 Things I Hate About You. Jane Smiley’s novel and its movie adaptation, A Thousand Acres, was King Lear transferred to an Iowa farm. Clueless was based on Jane Austen’s Emma, and the Coen brothers’ comedy O Brother, Where Art Thou?? was ripped from the headlines of Homer’s Odyssey.

It’s harder to find contemporary scripts based on Scripture. Mainstream filmmakers are reluctant to tinker with religious sensibilities, and even 1960s musicals like Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat and Jesus Christ Superstar took few liberties with plot, setting or characters. Even the most daring interpretations, whether it’s Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ or Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, are set in ancient times — Gibson even insisted on filming his dialogue in Aramaic.

Yet plenty of Old Testament stories carry temptingly modern (even sitcomy) themes: Ruth, after all, stayed and took care of her Jewish mother-in-law, and Queen Esther was picked by Ahasuerus after winning a beauty contest. (Queen Esther was invoked in the HBO movie Recount, when Florida’s secretary of state, Katherine Harris (Laura Dern), likens her situation in the 2000 election to that of the queen, who, she says, “was willing to sacrifice herself to save the lovely Jewish people.”)

Most biblical epics are just that, epic costume dramas that are literal, highly respectful accounts of the lives of Moses, Noah, John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth.

And that is one of the problems with Kings. The reinterpretation is bold, but the narrative pace is as stately and plodding as an Easter pageant’s. And that slow, ponderous approach makes weaknesses in the dialogue all the more obvious. McShane, who was so riveting as Al Swearengen on Deadwood, doesn’t have David Milch’s writing to work with; he gives the part of Silas everything he has, including bulging eyeballs and twitching eyebrows, and does the best he can.

'Kings' updates David and Goliath (Tim Goodman, March 13, 2009, SF Chronicle)
It's hard to put your finger on just what this series is trying to say. "Kings" takes elements from the biblical story of David and Goliath and Shakespeare and puts them in an ultramodern setting.

Starting with a two-hour premiere on Sunday, "Kings" is a curious piece of television that ultimately may not end up going anywhere satisfying. But in the premiere and two subsequent episodes, it keeps you wondering just what in the world it wants to be. And in a TV landscape of cookie-cutter formulas, that's a rare feat indeed.

The New Old Testament (James Poniewozik, Mar. 12, 2009, TIME)
Is it better for a TV show to be consistent or surprising? Is it worse for it to be ridiculous or boring? NBC's unorthodox new drama Kings (Sundays, 8 p.m. E.T.) comes down solidly on the latter side of those questions. Some viewers will say it's fascinating. Others will say it's pretentious hoo-ha. Allow me to split the difference: Kings is fascinating pretentious hoo-ha.

The premise of Kings is unlike that of anything else on TV: a reimagining of the biblical story of David, set in the modern world. Or an alternative version of it, where democracy never developed, where a King holds court in a skyscraper, where God speaks to man with signs and portents while man uses cell phones and the Internet.

'Kings': An ambitious but puzzling take on the Old Testament (ROBERT LLOYD, March 13, 2009, LA Times)
“Kings,” which begins Sunday on NBC, is certainly the strangest series to be offered by a major network in this slowly unrolling winter season, a parallel-world modernizing of the biblical story of King Saul and little David, who with his sling slew Goliath and later became king himself. (Goliath in this case is the name of a kind of tank, and the sling is a bazooka.)

Playing like some weird mix of "Dirty Sexy Money" and "Battlestar Galactica" -- though I doubt that was the pitch -- it is an interesting muddle of a show, smart and silly by turns. It's corny, ponderous, literary, ambitious, obvious and, at the beginning at least, as slow as molasses, but continually re-energized by Ian McShane as King Saul, or, as he's known here, King Silas Benjamin, possibly because Saul Benjamin sounded too Jewish.

Unconventional 'Kings'
Power and its abuses charge modern-day royal family drama
(Matthew Gilbert, March 13, 2009, Boston Globe)
"Kings" is very odd, kind of cool, and probably totally doomed.

This ambitious new drama resembles little else on TV right now, and that may make it something of a prime-time albatross. Get a load of the detectable influences in the first few episodes: The Bible, Aaron Spelling, ABC's now-canceled "Dirty Sexy Money," Shakespeare's history plays, "I, Claudius," Showtime's "The Tudors," and retro-futuristic science fiction.

Did I forget to mention George W. Bush as an influence? Because "Kings," which has its two-hour premiere on Sunday at 8 on Channel 7, is also a loosey-goosey allegory of the Bush era. In the fantasy premise, Ian McShane (from "Deadwood") plays the monarch of a country called Gilboa that looks a lot like America. McShane's Silas Benjamin locks Gilboa into an unpopular war with a country called Gath. Abuses of power ensue.

Amid all the "Kings" atmospheric strangeness - which includes castle-like architecture for the royals against a slick New York City-like skyline - there is much human nature afoot.

Ian McShane rules over 'Kings' (Maureen Ryan, Chicago Tribune)
All “Kings” had to do was give me an excuse to watch Ian McShane.

Happily, this generally well-told tale of a modern-day king and his restive court has more going for it than a charismatic performance from the dependably wonderful “Deadwood” star.

“Kings” isn’t much like anything else on TV, and that’s one of the good things about it. Visually and thematically, however, this tale of royal intrigue does contain echoes of “Heroes,” the series that “Kings” creator Michael Green worked on previously.

Both shows tell the stories of flawed humans who are given great power and who struggle with the moral consequences of their choices. At their best, both are epic tales told with aesthetic flourish.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at March 15, 2009 12:00 AM
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