Kings: a season-to-date review
Posted by therebelprince on July 14, 2009
In this review, I’ll be examining the first 11 hours of NBC’s odd 13-episode series Kings. I’ll take a look at the plot, but mostly at the production as a whole – and why it failed to spectacularly.
Kings was a surprising innovation on the television landscape: a serial series that managed to be soap opera, political drama and speculative fiction all in one (with a health dose of the supernatural thrown in late in the piece for good measure). It mixed pretention with humility, and boasted a cast led by Ian McShane (above, with Christopher Egan) and handsomely complimented by Dylan Baker, Sebastian Stan and Susanna Thompson. However before it could find its footing, the series was pulled from the schedule – not unreasonably on account of ratings – and returned over the summer to boast the lowest ratings for a new primetime episode on a major network. Ever. (Impressive, no?) And yet for all this, the series wasn’t bad. In fact I’d much rather watch this than quite a lot of the dreck that aired over the last few months. So, what went wrong?
First, let’s quickly recap the plot:
In the fictional nation of Gilboa, King Silas (McShane) has finally united the people. While war threatens with the neighbouring Gath, Silas faces rebellion in his own borders. On the home front, his wife Rose (Thompson) rules the castle with an iron fist but a press-appropriate demeanour. The Prince Jack ( Stan) has a reputation as a womaniser and a party animal. In fact, he’s gay and in love with one of his bodyguards Joseph (Michael Adren) but his father, seemingly sympathetic to this fact, knows that Jack can’t have his relationship and the crown. Princess Michelle (Allison Miller) meanwhile, is a champion for health care reform after a childhood illness saw her close to death.
Politically, Silas works with his General Linus Abner (Wes Studi) in uniting the people and challenging Gath, but faces daily opposition from his brother-in-law Michael (Dylan Baker), who has his own dark motives. Providing occasional commentary and advice is the former King (Brian Cox), who is presumed dead but is in fact locked in the dungeons, where he has developed an unlikely friendship with Silas: both men now have someone they can tell the whole truth to.
Into this mix walks David (Australian actor Christopher Egan), a child of the recently united lands, whose father died in the wars, and whose brother subsequently dies also. David becomes a hero of the people and, although it isn’t what he wants, both Silas and others see him as the natural heir to the throne. David himself is more interested in Michelle, even though she tells him that he can never have her.
It’s a promising beginning, and the series does well to play with so many of the possible combinations in its initial 11 episodes. Adding to the handsome mix: political aide-de-camp Thomasina (Marlyne Afflack, last seen amongst the final season of The Wire); Silas’ mistress Helen (Sarita Choudury) whose young son (his, of course) suffers from the same disease that afflicted Michelle; a pair of comic-relief palace guards Boyden and Klotz (Jason Antoon and Joel Garland ); an ambitious reporter (Leslie Bibb) who sets her sights on becoming royalty at any costs; David’s mother (Becky Ann Baker), who has a personal vendetta against Silas for the loss of her son and husband; and Michael’s son Andrew (Macaulay Culkin) who was exiled for mysterious reasons but is at last brought back in a peace move.
The cast are uniformly good (Egan, the only exception, starts out unsure of himself but develops to the point where he’s the best thing about the 10th episode, “Chapter One”) and the production values are sumptuous. The problems lie elsewhere.
The series’ brave new landscape had critics talking, and its actually a bit of a surprise that NBC waited so long to premiere the show. Much like its lesser late-release Harper’s Island, Kings would have benefited from a mini-series treatment or at least, like FOX grants 24 these days, a 2-day 4-hour premiere to really get it s point across. Instead, viewers were quick to tune out and the series should consdier itself lucky enough that it will get a DVD release (fitting neatly into that niche like Firefly which may actually do better in a DVD environment).
(Right: Sebastian Stan as the cold, closeted prince)
So, what happened? Well, for a start the series is shaky. As with any epic series, it needed time to find a) its style, and b) its arcs. This worked all very well five years ago when Lost started – opening to a world excited by the novelty of serial dramas and tuning in en masse to pilot episodes, but today three episodes is about the time you’ll get from an average viewer. The series works best when it is personal – “Pilgrimage”, in which Silas takes David to see his mistress, and Rose must deal with her children’s personal scandals, is one of the strongest episodes. On the other hand, “Brotherhood”, sends Jack and David on a somewhat contrived mission into the Gath heartland. While these episodes are as well-filmed and produced as the others, they lack the heart of those centering around the royal family. I feel bad saying this, since it is the vision of the series which appealed to me, but the Gath/Gilboa tensions fascinate me less.
The series’ language also takes a few episodes to develop. While a faux-Shakespearean vernacular develops as the series goes by, it is dropped in some aspects of the series and as such feels slightly feigned when it does appear. And the mysterious and languid character development – we still don’t know why Andrew was exiled – would have worked had the series been more successful from the start. Here, though, it just adds to the confusion for new viewers.
Undoubtedly the strongest performances come from McShane and Thompson, who possess a level of dignity and power which is awestriking. Thompson’s Queen Rose knows exactly when it is her turn to wield, and when to step back. We’re never quite sure how much she knows about her husband’s life, or the specifics of his rule, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that she knows everything. As the series has crawled toward its conclusion, it becomes clear that her prime concern is for her children, not Silas (early implications suggest that the marriage was a political one which has become love – or at least close companionship – over time). I’ll be interested to see what decisions she is forced to in the finale, as Silas and his children fracture apart.
McShane – coming on the heels of his magnificent run on “Deadwood” – gives each speech and self-aware line a nuance that few actors could pull off. His scenes with Brian Cox in the latter’s cell sparkle with chemistry that hasn’t been seen since… well, since these two appeared together on “Deadwood” in fact!
(The only slightly awkward aspect about McShane’s presence is that one of the show’s recurring themes, a dramatic classical guitar, sounds eerily similar to the strummy banjo theme that permeated Deadwood‘s canvas. But that’s neither here nor there, I’m sure. Hey, when I think of McShane, I think of that theme!)
And then there’s the supernatural element. I initially cringed when the butterflies circled David’s head (albeit beautifully) in the pilot, just because it seemed to reek of a symbolism-only moment. In light of the recent “Sabbath Queen” episode, I may have to reconsider. In flashbacks, as Michelle lies on her deathbed, Silas makes a pact with Death herself (a very creepy Saffron Burrows) to save his daughter’s life. In return, he will willingly step down when the next King – clearly David, as prefigured by his mournful piano playing that accompanies Silas’ visions – appears. When Michelle wakes she, unaware of this pact, makes her own pact to dedicate her life to God and not her own interests. It’s a beautiful and scary episode which lends the series an otherworldly tone. Perhaps Death was an entirely imaginary experience on King Silas’ part, but I’m not so sure. If she exists, I’m sure we’ll see something of equally supernatural fare in the finale to substantiate this claim.
Above: Saffron Burrows as Death offers Silas an ultimatum.
All in all, this series has probably dealt more hits than it has misses. Jack’s doomed relationship with Joseph is particularly effective, and his new engagement – to a brainless trophy wife – looks to be a storyline that can milk some drama. Silas’ brutal other side (he kills Abner in a moment of fury) is always interesting to behold. And the political machinations of Michael Cross, even though they stretch to ludicrous extremes – turning of all of the power and somehow holding the keys to getting it turned back on – are enjoyable on a malevolent level.
Macaulay Culkin, although underused, has proved effective as Andrew. The portrayal of David has occasionally seemed to stem primarily from wishful thinking – Egan’s early portrayal, combined with the bland hero aspect to his character left me wanting more. In the aftermath of “Chapter One”, Egan really stepped up to the plate to deliver a David whose vision of him as King sees him questioning his own future, and his relationship with the King. And Eamonn Walker, late of Oz, is unsurprisingly effective as Reverend Samuels, a religious heavyweight in the capital of Shiloh. Walker remained a background character during season one, who I assume would have played a larger role in things to come. It’s a pity we didn’t see more of him here, because he exudes a raw power which would have made him a fitting co-star for McShane in more scenes.
The misses, more than anything, are aspects the series could have fixed with time. The cast are solid and their character relationships well-defined. It’s clear also that the writers know where they are going. The problem, I suspect, is indicative of what all serial dramas are going to go through in today’s climate: how do you craft the first chapter to a longer planned narrative, but also keep it interesting enough that new viewers to early episodes can still play along at home? I don’t entirely blame the writers of this show: NBC should really have had the foresight to advertise this differently, and give it a miniseries treatment during its first season. But the hit-and-miss ratio of the early episodes also can’t entirely be blamed on that. In fact, several episodes – “Fight Night”, “Brotherhood”, “The Sabbath Queen” – present themselves as individual episodes. No, this failure is a joint production of the usual lack of network foresight, and an inability to see the trees for the forest on the part of Michael Green and his crew.
To be honest, I suspect the show would have failed anyway. It’s a love-it-or-hate-it affair, where the grandiose nature of the dialogue and the concept alone would turn away a good deal of network TV audiences. And while the cast are very good at their roles, it seems that there is a growing audience not interested in committing to a larger storyline. I think Kings could have been an admirable failure had it been allowed to complete its first season, but instead will live in infamy.
What will see in the final two episodes of Kings? I’m ignorant of the show’s filming schedule, but I know they were still filming in March of this year. Here’s hoping Green got wind of the show’s rating dilemmas before filming finished so as to close up a few storylines. (Admittedly, the events of this week’s “Javelin” had a surprising revelatory feel: between Silas’ infuriated cry of “Faggot!” to his son, and the outed relationship between Michelle and David.) Only time will tell.
Kings concludes its run on NBC Saturday 18th and 25th of July at 8PM