I Like to Watch

The royal treatment: NBC's "Kings" is a rare and beautiful thing -- cinematic, poetic, ambitious television on prime time network TV.

Published March 15, 2009 10:10AM (EDT)

 During hard times, we hunger for the reassurances of fate. We long for some divine force to guide us through a cruel, unpredictable world, to indicate, through some glorious and elegant spectacle, that we'll make it through the storm.

Here in America, for all of our democratic ideals, we're more than happy to treat our leader like royalty, so long as he has the stature and dignity to deserve our adoration. Because, just as a bumbling frat boy who stumbles on his words and blithely drops bombs on nonbelievers can make the entire world look like a hardened, messy, incomprehensible hell, a graceful, eloquent man seems to magically transform our planet into a shiny, hopeful place populated by humble, pure-hearted people who have the courage to believe that they'll make it through the darkness. Even the atheists among us relish the sense that some eternal, celestial force has finally descended, to cure our blindness and set us free.

We're fragile children, after all, and we'd prefer to believe that there's a benevolent and wise parent somewhere who loves us unconditionally. Even if our actual parents sipped gin and tonics and mumbled halfheartedly in our direction as Walter Cronkite confirmed their worst suspicions about the world, we still can't quite let go of our deep desire to be soothed and led, like docile lambs. Grown up and burdened by a million and one responsibilities, we still yearn to be told stories and fed and tucked into bed, assured that the path ahead is clear and simple, flat and smooth, set forth by a mystical power who reigns over every living thing.

Divine intervention

Five years ago, NBC's "Kings" wouldn't have haunted us with its vision of a royal leader, guiding a once confused and destitute fictional land through the hard times to a glorious, shining fate. Its mythical kingdom, Gilboa, would have seemed cartoonish and farfetched, its florid prose would have struck us as pretentious and unnecessary, its stylized, ambitious cinematography would have appeared excessive and melodramatic. We might have misinterpreted the central plot --  King Silas (Ian McShane) leads his modern-day war-torn land through a terrible time with the unexpected help of humble soldier David Shepherd (Chris Egan) -- as offering some skin-deep parable about celebrity culture or the thoughtless cruelty of war. The pomp and circumstance of King Silas' reign, the way he tells the cheering crowds a story of being anointed by God to rule his land, as signaled by a crown of butterflies that one day came and rested on his head, would be lost on us. We'd assume that this was the creation of some J.R.R. Tolkien fan plagued by delusions of grandeur.

But we occupy a changed world from the one we inhabited five years ago, a world where our continued comfort and prosperity has been cast into doubt in a way once considered unthinkable. We have a new leader who's not shy about laying out the immediate, sweeping, drastic measures necessary to keep our ship from smashing into the rocky shoals. After over a decade of viewing politicians as deeply corrupt, quarrelsome, petty men, we're suddenly forced to concede that not only does our leadership matter, but that strong, firm leadership is essential to our survival.

Against this background, NBC's "Kings" looks less like a work of pretentious puffery and more like an imaginative fable, rich with insights into the ways that power -- particularly power that's seen as divinely granted -- inspires and corrupts.

"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." "Kings" even shares some of the vaguely Shakespearean, stylized dialogue of David Milch's scrappy masterpiece, as with this conspiratorial talk between King Silas and his trusted confident, General Abner (Wes Studi):

Abner: He'll be trouble, you watch. I know the type. The only way to deal with him is with a bullet.

King: Please, he's an infant. He's got everyone eating out of his hand. Cameras are wearing themselves out. No one's talking about the war. This court needs a new face to look up to. No, we can use him.

As well-written as his dialogue may be, King Silas could've ended up a far less compelling  character in anyone else's hands. But McShane 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. See for yourself: There's not a single lazy shot or half-assed image on the screen, from start to finish, and the results fall somewhere between a moody art film, a big-budget superhero blockbuster and the more breathtaking scenes from "Lord of the Rings."

But where will this simple story of a mythical modern day hero take us? The answer isn't entirely clear. In addition to having his earnest fingers in a few unwanted pies, Shepherd is falling in love with the king's daughter, Michelle (Allison Miller). Meanwhile, the king has plenty of secrets up his sleeve -- secret loves, secret prisoners, secret benefactors -- all of which we'll keep under wraps for the sake of forcing you to watch the first two-hour episode. But honestly, it's difficult to care all that much about the exact details of the plot moving forward. The dialogue is just so artful and poetic, the characters are so appealing, the whole damn package is so original and daring and lovely, that after watching the first four hours, it's impossible not to feel inspired and cheered by the fact that a drama this ambitious and unique could make it onto network TV.

And it couldn't have come at a better time. "Kings" was custom-made for this particularly dark but defiantly optimistic moment in history; it feels like some divine power must've intervened to shield it from the usual forces that more typically transform truly original shows into mediocre also-rans. It's a miracle that someone didn't squeeze the life out of this imaginative drama a long time ago. And if by some crazy twist of fate, audiences give "Kings" its due, recognizing its brilliance and making it the hit that it deserves to be, then we'll be left to assume that divinity is, in fact, in play.

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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