It's no secret that since cable television started making more original programming, they've been giving network TV a run for its money. Anyone who suffered through the recent Emmys broadcast probably noted how many cable series dominated the various categories. In response, network television has started to get a little more ambitious, favoring high concepts and ongoing stories to more traditional episode-to-episode dramas. Though I'm no TV snob, most of what is popular right now doesn't really work for me, I think that what seems to be successful is just a lot of dumb flash and short on the quality writing that distinguishes a show like Mad Men or Six Feet Under. So, how fares an intelligently wonky network show like Kings? Not so well, it seems, since this DVD set has gone from being The Complete First Season to The Complete Series.
Which is too bad, because Kings had a lot of potential. Think of it as a sort of royal West Wing (a good example of network TV that was also probably too smart to survive). A modern day retelling of the Biblical King David story, with maybe a little Arthurian destiny mumbo jumbo mixed in, set in a world that looks very much like our own, Kings got a pretty impressive push from NBC when it first started airing, but was quickly yanked from the schedule and relegated to airing the remainder of its 12 episodes on Saturday nights over the summer. Not exactly the time slot of success.
Created by David Green, a veteran television writer, Kings is set in the imagined kingdom of Gilboa, a nation that has found new prosperity under King Silas Benjamin (Deadwood's Ian McShane). Silas has a palace of sorts, a high rise in the capital city of Shiloh (whose skyline is a slightly altered version of New York's). Though he believes that he was chosen by God, Silas' power is largely financial, and his support is split between religious fervor and practical capitalist politics. On one side, the charismatic religious leader Reverend Ephram Samuels (Eamonn Walker, Oz) and on the other William Cross (character actor Dylan Baker), head of CrossGen Industries and the King's brother-in-law. Both pull at the King to do the right thing according to their particular gospel, and both at times conspire to dethrone him.
Gilboa has been engaged in an ongoing war with their neighbors, the Kingdom of Gath, who despite having less riches and technology, have the military might to crush Gilboa, who have so far taken a less aggressive attack-only-when-attacked-first approach. Enter David Shepherd (Christopher Egan, Vanished), a farm boy with maybe more guts than common sense, a soldier on the front line fighting where his father fought and died before him. When Gath takes a group of Gilboan soldiers hostage, David undertakes an unauthorized solo mission to rescue his comrades. Unbeknownst to him, among them is Prince Jack (Sebastian Stan, Gossip Girl), heir to the throne. This makes David's impulsive action a heroic deed, and he is invited to Shiloh and appointed to be the public face of the Army. He's a public relations dream--which isn't always good, since dreams can be unpredictable.
Kings was an hour-long drama (with commercials) when it aired, with a special double-length premiere episode. Though essentially one big story, each episode works both as a contributing chapter and a mini drama. The show is concerned with the ins and outs of Silas Benjamin's governance, and each installment sheds light on different aspects of how his kingdom is run. This makes what was to be Kings' first season as much about world building as anything else. So, episode 2 weaves a history lesson of the conflict between Gilboa and Gath into its drama about peace negotiations, and "Judgment Day," episode 5, steps back a little to show us the annual ritual of King Silas hearing ten cases that have been jammed up in the justice system and ruling on them himself. Amidst the intrigue is a load of personal drama. Jack feels edged out by David, and he wrestles with forbidden emotions his family would rather keep secret. Queen Rose (Susanna Thompson, Once and Again) tries to keep her husband's kingdom in order, even as he rushes off to see his secret lover (Kathleen Mealia) and their lovechild. Princess Michelle (Allison Miller, 17 Again) would rather fight for health care reform than be a pretty face trotted out at royal events.
Michelle would also rather date David Shepherd than any of the stuffed-shirt nobility chosen for her, a romance that will foment class issues amongst her family. David is the focus of the series as much as King Silas, seen as possibly the new chosen one and alternately aiding and frustrating the King's efforts. His family is the salt that has yielded much in the King's earth, and his loyalty to them will tug at him as much as his duty in Shiloh. David is meant to be the country mouse gone to the big city, getting a political education while struggling to keep his down-home morality intact, a fairly standard trope for these kinds of stories. Unfortunately, he ends up being the weak link in the Kings chain. Rather than an interesting focal point, David comes off as wishy-washy and a bit of a crybaby. Part of it is the writing, but part of it is also Christopher Egan's performance. He has two expressions: smiling and emo. His earnest whining is more fitting for an adolescent romantic tearjerker than a grown-up drama. Compare, instead, Sebastian Stan's turn as the Prince, and you can see a real difference. Stan plays Jack like the spoiled bastard in one of Shakespeare's Kingly dramas, caught between his own inner urges and the desire to have everything promised to him. He is intense, evil, and ultimately weak in ways that come off as more deeply felt than Egan's tearstained cheeks and furrowed brows. It's like one of them is auditioning for HBO, the other one the CW. (Maybe Egan can join Stan over there? Melrose Place seems about his speed.)
Not that anyone has much of a chance shining next to Ian McShane anyway. Remember how on Deadwood they gave Al Swearengen an illness so he'd be bedridden and give the rest of the cast some room to assert themselves, and how it didn't work, McShane still stole the show? Casting him in the sovereign role is an inspired choice. His dominant presence and gravelly voice always command attention, and his extensive background in stage acting has prepared him well for the larger dramatic gestures while his TV and film work has taught him how to play the smaller, tightly cropped moments with real gravitas.
Kings is shot as a widescreen drama by several directors, with Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) setting the tone for the series by directing the first several episodes. It can't be a cheap show to produce, not with all those opulent interiors and the battlefield action, but every penny spent ended up on the screen. The producers don't cut any corners, nothing looks cheap or faked. Though sometimes the episodes can drag and suffer from pre-commercial false climaxes, this is a well-done television show. Even the guest stars, who arrive largely unheralded, are of top caliber. Brian Cox, Leslie Bibb, and Macaulay Culkin all step in and out of the show, playing recurring characters. Comedy is maybe the crew's one Achilles heal, though thankfully it is kept mostly at bay. Two palace guards that are all over the first handful of episodes, playing the comic jesters, never quite work; it's another Shakespearian lift, but one that is forced and archaic, and thankfully these guys disappear for entire episodes at a time.
I have to say, Kings is a pretty weird show. I enjoyed it, but I never got comfortable with the anachronistic conceit. Shiloh looks like our world, has the conveniences of modern times, but is meant to appear like it has just emerged from the medieval era. The courtly manners, the pomp and circumstance, dressed up in 21st-century clothes never stops being odd. That said, by the final two episodes, the careful orchestration of this self-contained world comes to fruition. All the plot lines come to create a complicated knot of political intrigue and tension. There are occasional bum notes when the writers try to draw a connection to current political moments (someone throws a shoe at the King? Really?), but the purpose of all the various pieces finally becomes clear. Even David isn't nearly as much of a wuss as he once was.
The finale of the series is fairly satisfying, though not perfect. Certain cycles complete, and it does reach a logical ending point--if maybe just an ending for book 1 of an intended ongoing series. While folks can walk away from this feeling they got a complete story, it's clear there was some hope for another season of Kings. At least it doesn't go out on a real cliffhanger, though. Shifts have happened, and most everyone is secure where they are. Dangling "tune in next time" questions are almost entirely absent.
Overall, Kings: The Complete Series is an entertaining, fascinating television experiment. It may have started off a little heavy on the forced mysticism and symbols, but it really found its legs as it went. It's too bad it didn't get a second go, it would have been interesting to see if the creators could keep the plates spinning long enough to go through another season or two. It might have given them the chance to come up with something a little more radical that would have been talked about for years to come. Kings: The Complete Series isn't really the most memorable slice of TV I've seen recently; instead, It will likely end up an interesting footnote from the time when television was trying to find its way into the future, but it's short life will mean most of us will likely watch it once and move on.
Kings: The Complete Series gathers 12 episodes, each roughly 40 minutes, onto three discs at a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. The digital transfer for this series is excellent. All the shows have vivid colors, deep blacks, and crisp resolution, with only the most minor of compression issues. Viewing options are for watching episodes individually or playing them all at once.
The English soundtrack is mixed in Dolby 5.1, with optional subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired. The audio is very good, as solid as the video transfer, though fairly straightforward. I didn't notice much by way of effects or multiple speaker interplay.
The extra-long premiere episode has an audio commentary with the show's creator and head writer, Michael Green, director Francis Lawrence, and actor Ian McShane.
Six episodes have deleted scenes, mostly constituting redundant moments or filler that was deemed unnecessary to the storytelling. For instance, on episode 2, "Prosperity," there is a scene where the King and the delegate from Gath discuss what Silas will ultimately offer as a trade for peace, which would make it one of two mentions before the offer is made and would have undercut the impact of the King's revelation by making it more obvious. Another in a later episode shows an unneeded detour to Reverend Samuels' house that does nothing to alleviate or add to the tension between him and Silas--though we do meet an otherwise unseen wife for the preacher. Overall, these were smart excisions.
DVD 1 has some sneak peeks at other TV sets.
Kings: The Compete Series is packaged in a folding cardboard book with plastic trays which is housed in an outer slipcover. The back of the slipcover has basic info about the show, while the interior book has an episode guide complete with notations of which episodes have the commentary and deleted scenes. It's a handsome package with sturdy construction. It's also nice of NBC to include an insert ad for Jay Leno's new talk show in the box since the lame idea of moving Jay to 10:00 pm has effectively killed primetime dramas like Kings on the network. Way to rub it in, ya jerks!
Recommended. Kings: The Complete Series is a TV show big on concept that largely delivers on the promise in its story. Set in a fictional version of our world where monarchies exist in Western society, it stars Ian McShane as a charismatic King struggling to lead his nation through difficult times while trying to maintain his legacy in the face of a new upstart who may be destined to rule. The story is complicated and trundles along at a fairly good clip, and though it doesn't really stick in the brain, it holds one's interest while it's running.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with JoŽlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.