Divine Inspiration: Kings Works Wonders

Creeds and collars, religious forms and formality, don’t do well on television. So when I heard about Kings, a new NBC series based on the biblical hero David, I expected a train wreck.

The series, which premiered March 15, is anything but: It’s visually compelling, engagingly written, and serviceably acted (much depending on whether Ian McShane’s scenery-chomping and Chris Egan’s crinkly-eyed smile appeals). Updating the story cuts down the coy factor, allowing writers to make the villains (big money guys) and the heroes (health care advocates, energy activists, and farmers) recognizable, but the absence of time/place specificity lends an appealing (to some of us) sci-fi aura.

Kings makes plain what many other TV series keep hidden: their “divine” inspiration. Bible stories have been told, read, acted, and illustrated for 2000-plus years because they’re dramatic, character-driven yarns that mirror basic human themes, and TV writers know a good thing when they see it. Sibling rivalry? Last season’s Cane. Reluctant prophet? Eli Stone. Fallen woman? Saving Grace. Wounded healer? House. Kings makes its source material explicit, which seems like a calculated risk.

That’s because the specificity of institutional religion practically begs both critics and adherents to weigh in on verisimilitude, and show-runners rarely please either. Remember The Book of Daniel, Revelations, and Nothing Sacred? On the other hand, shows with a spiritual bent or a quirky religious character frequently succeed. Buffy battled evil for seven seasons, and during President Jed Bartlet’s 7-year tenure, Catholicism secured his moral compass. Subtlety continues to trump heavy-handed plots and characters, which is why Lost survives and Eli Stone went missing.

Kings is not subtle. Everything is over the top: Battle scenes, palace interiors, and corporate meetings are stuffed with detail and drama more akin to a big-budget movie than a weekly TV show. The acting is melodramatic and the conceit—Bible story as science fiction—requires a leap of faith. It’s probably for the best that the religious piece is subtlely unsubtle. Echoing our own equivocations—King Silas Benjamin tells his subjects, “It’s not popular to speak of God, but I do because I am blessed.” But he also displays a marked ambivalence to God’s messenger, the Rev. Ephram Samuels, who’s wise in the ways of single-malt scotch and royal matchmaking.

I can’t guess how viewers will react, but I can predict what reviewers and pundits will say. There will be much talk of acting and aesthetics, genre-bending and dramatic pretensions. But I hope to see some thoughtful writing on why this story at this moment, how a writer and executive producer of Heroes went on to Kings, and whether a modern-day reinterpretation of the Bible resonates in the same way as the original.

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