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Reviewed by Will Harris
very so often, a network television series comes along which is so creative and intelligent that, even as you’re watching its first episode, you know in your heart of hearts that there’s no way in Hell that the average viewer is ever going to embrace it. And yet, you love it so much that you still go out of your way to tell as many people about it as possible.
That’s what NBC’s “Kings” was for me.
“Kings” was an epic drama with the kind of scope that you rarely see on television in series form, one in which executive producers Michael Green, Francis Lawrence, and Erwin Stoff literally created a new world that provided them with the opportunity to offer tales of war and love without offending any existing countries. It needed to be a hit right out of the box, lest it be canceled without ever having a chance to build on its concept. Instead, it bombed in the ratings, but the good news – relatively speaking – is that NBC, having already completed the show’s 13-episode first season, allowed it to play out for fans that were willing to follow the series from Sunday evenings to the Saturday night death slot. (You may recall that the same maneuver was performed by CBS with “Harper’s Island.”)
Ian McShane plays King Silas Benjamin, leader of a land known as Gilboa, which, despite being an obvious monarchy, looks suspiciously like America. When “Kings” opens, Silas is preparing to address his subjects, and when he embarks upon his speech, we’re introduced to some of those who are watching it at home, including a young man named David Shepherd (Chris Egan). Unfortunately, despite the optimism within Silas’s speech, we soon fast-forward to two years later, when David and many other men of Gilboa are in the midst of fighting in Gilboa’s war against the neighboring nation of Gath. After a few of his fellow soldiers are kidnapped by the enemy, David decides to ignore his orders and slip in under cover of darkness to retrieve his comrades. He succeeds, but his superior officer is prepared to court-martial him despite his success. Good thing, then, that one of the individuals rescued from the enemy was Jack Benjamin (Sebastian Stan), otherwise known as King Silas’s son. Suddenly, not only is David avoiding a tribunal, but he’s trumpeted as a national hero – and, perhaps more importantly, the leader of his country owes him a favor. Better yet, though, it turns out that there’s a spark of attraction between David and King Silas’s daughter, Michelle (Allison Miller), who can be a little more outspoken about certain governmental policies than her father would like.
Though it may sound on the surface like a simple love story, “Kings” quickly proved to be an extremely deep series, one which explores how nothing is ever as simple as it seems when one is dealing with the government. David is an all-American – sorry, all-Gilboan – boy who fought for his country because it was the right thing to do, and King Silas sees in the wide-eyed young lad a vision of himself before he became locked into his role by the corrupt individuals who “help” him command the nation. We quickly learn that just because the king can and wants to end a war doesn’t mean that the government will allow him to do so, particularly if there’s money to be made in its continuing. Silas breaks free of the financial reigns of his despicable brother-in-law, industrialist William Cross (Dylan Baker), but he thereby incurs his wrath and inspires a series of attempts at revenge through blackmail and the like.
You hate to throw around the word “Shakespearean” willy-nilly, but there’s no getting around the influence of the Bard in “Kings.” There are two members of the Royal Guard – Klotz (Joel Garland) and Boyden (Jason Antoon) – who are clearly cut from the same cloth as Rosenkrantz and Gildenstern, and the various choices of phrase used by other characters are decidedly regal. There is considerable discussion of faith within the series, but it’s interesting to note that, although the king has a religious advisor (played by Eamonn Walker, late of “Oz”), it doesn’t feel like a slap in the face to religion. Instead, it’s more about how, yes, some people do have faith, and they aren’t afraid to practice it.
The relationship between David Shepherd and King Silas is a complex one, constantly developing throughout the series. Silas likes and respects David, but he can’t abide by his actions, so he has to order him killed, except that he’s too valuable to die, so he gets a reprieve and finds his way into the inner circle of the royal family. The relationship between David and Michelle adds to the complexity of King Silas’s feelings toward him, but what really shakes things up is the fact that the king tends to like David more than he likes his own son. Indeed, Jack Benjamin proves integral to the series, with his hatred toward his father inspiring a change of sides.
We haven’t even begun to dig into the world of “Kings,” which also places heavy focus on the often-rocky relationship between King Silas and his wife (which would be made rockier if she knew that he had a whole other family that he visits when time allows), Jack’s sexuality, and the relationship between William Cross and his son, Andrew (Macaulay Culkin), who has returned from exile with an eerie desire to please his father. We also get tempted by great storylines which weren’t explored fully. For instance, we don’t get nearly enough back story about Vesper Abedon (Brian Cox), the former king who now resides permanently in the dungeons of Gilboa, nor is there sufficient exploration of the government of Gath. I mean, it’s just evil to give us characters played by Mark Margolis and Miguel Ferrer but only let us visit with them for a couple of episodes!
To watch “Kings” is to be in awe that a show with such breadth and depth of scope was ever produced for a broadcast network in the first place, but it will also prove to be an exercise in annoyance, since it concludes (as soon many single-season wonders do) with countless cliffhangers. Still, it’s so damned good – and, yes, so epic – that it must be admired, even if that admiration will forever be steeped in regret for what might’ve come in Season Two but never will.
Special Features: Well, it’s not packed, but there are several deleted scenes which serve to fill in a few blanks and expand on the series’ universe. The best bonus, however, is the audio commentary on the two-hour premiere (“Goliath”) by Green, Lawrence, and McShane, recorded after the series had gone off the air. At one point, someone – either Green or Lawrence – observes that what we’re seeing doesn’t look like something you’d usually see on TV. “Which is maybe one of the reasons why we’re not on TV anymore,” laughs McShane. Hey, at least he’s got a sense of humor about it.