Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Hollywood Babble On & On #252: Kings With Broken Crowns

NBC's much hyped new drama Kings premiered with less than royal numbers, and it looks like another nail in the coffin of the once dominant network. I have to admit that it's a daring concept to adapt the Bible's story of King David as an alternate world TV drama/soap opera, but I fear that it's flaws may hold it back, and I found myself watching the premiere, but unable to complete it.

Here's a list of what I think are the show's flaws, why I think they're flaws, and what could have been done to prevent them...


THE SOURCE MATERIAL: America is a predominantly Christian nation that hold the Bible near dear. And while the story of King David holds a lot of fodder for drama, it also has some pitfalls.

A. The audience is largely familiar with the story. Perhaps a little
too familiar. I mean I had the plot-lines for the whole series worked out within the first five minutes. That's not good when you're trying to create a new television drama. Drama requires surprise, not the certainty that the lowly commoner would become a warrior king by sweeps in season three.

B. When using the Bible you tread a fine line, especially when using Biblical material in an allegorical sense. While there is sex, violence, and treachery in the stories of the Bible, presenting them on TV is a minefield. Go too far, and you might potentially offend your target audience, and be viewed as disrespectful, hold back too much, and your story will be dull.

C. People hear "Biblical" and they automatically assume "preachy." That might be acceptable in regular doses on specialty channels, and children's programming, but not in their soap operas.


I like the idea of a show about an alternate universe America that's a monarchy instead of a republic. As a concept it's got a great amount of potential, you can have all kinds of treachery and lechery in the halls of power without the nuisance of being compared to modern politics.

History has loads of examples that the creators could have used. England under the Tudors have been done almost to death, but there's literally loads of other royal lines to use as source material. There's also ancient Rome, a republic turned monarchy, loaded with sex, violence, and betrayal. Or they could have used the Byzantine Empire as a model, a powerful, but corrupted monarchy dominated by assassinations and military coups. None of them have the baggage of adapting Biblical stories.

And while these stories may have a ring of familiarty to them, but very few people know all the details. The familiarity of the symbology draws them in, the mystery keeps them watching.


THE WORLD THEY CREATED: Like I said, America as a monarchy is a cool concept, but they just didn't create the sense that there was much history behind this monarchy. Everything looked too new, too slick, the butterfly crest looked more befitting a tube of toothpaste than an ancient royal seal. (Even new monarchies like Silas Benjamin's always try to present themselves as linked to a heroic past, which is why the trappings of royalty always seem to be old-fashioned looking.)

The King, even though the nation's at war, doesn't seem to have many bodyguards, ministers or servants. He even leaps out of a just landed helicopter to attend his wounded son, without a single bodyguard by his side. Now I know that there are budget and story constraints, but even low budget BBC productions of the 1970s at least created the sense of the massive machinery that surrounds any head of state, whether that head is crowned or not. And even though Silas Benjamin gained power through the military, he doesn't wear a uniform, or medals, or any other symbol of his military career. The character, despite Ian McShane's solid performance, looked more like a corporate CEO rather than an absolute monarch. Maybe that's the image the makers were going for, but I just don't see it establishing the show's world as truly different, or exotic from our own.


When you're pitching a story set in an alternate world, you have to make it both familiar and exotic. The show had a lot of the familiar, but not enough of the exotic, and could have tried to bump it up a notch. Also they could have done more to make it look more royal and less corporate.

In closing I guess I should say that it was a good concept, with a good cast, but there was something lacking in the execution. Which is a shame, we need something beyond police procedurals on television, something exciting, something that will take you to a new world that will hold your interest for the entire pilot.

At least that's my opinion, what's yours...


  1. Well, it took guts, and I salute NBC for at least trying something different, but I'm afraid you're right - it's going to fail. And yes, there is a lot of material that they could have accessed, for Byzantium to Rome to Imperial Japan, that would have provided a better hook than the Old Testament. Also, it just didn't look or feel like a real world, and it didn't pull the audience in, the way an alternate universe has to, in order to work. They needed to pull some of those old guys who did shows like Dr. Who and Star Trek (The Original) from the 60's and 70's out of retirement; they could show them how to create a believable alternative world on a budget. A good basic idea, poorly executed, in my opinion.


  2. The producers could have also gone to the many authors of "alternate history" science-fiction for consultation on how to create the historical basis of the world, and how it split off from ours.

  3. Yeah, it's really remarkable how much time TV and movie people spend re-inventing the wheel. How many times have you seen something hailed as a "bold breakthrough" in TV or movies that is really just a lame, dumbed-down knockoff of something Heinlein or P.J. Farmer did fifty years ago?