At a time when NBC seems more interested in debuting various forms of dreadful TV -- "Superstars of Dance," "Kath & Kim," the new "Knight Rider" -- the network's superior drama series "Kings" seems like an alien invader from Showtime. Smart, subtle and everything that NBC is not these days, "Kings" is a risky venture for the deplumed peacock network.
There is much that goes unsaid in tonight's two-hour pilot. Viewers may have to work to keep up, but knowing the show's source material will help to follow this re-telling of the Bible's David story from 1 Samuel. (For a brief recap, look up "King David" at Wikipedia.com).
Tonight's episode, titled "Goliath," introduces David Shepherd (Chris Egan, "Eragon"), a country boy in the modern, fictional kingdom of Gilboa, who goes to war and faces off against a Goliath tank and rescues captured soldiers, including Jack (Sebastian Stan), the son of King Silas Benjamin (Ian McShane,
"Deadwood"), a stand-in for the Bible's King Saul.
David is hailed as a hero, causing Jack to get jealous as the king uses David for public relations purposes. Other characters include Queen Rose (Susanna Thompson, "Once & Again"); her greedy, scheming brother, William (Dylan Baker) and the Rev. Ephram Samuels (Eamonn Walker, "Oz"), whose visit with David two years before he stares down Goliath includes a blink-and-you'll-miss-it anointing.
"Kings" contains many such moments of nuanced storytelling and character revelation. If you're not paying attention, you'll miss Silas order the killing of an uncooperative member of his court. This light touch, as opposed to the usual broadcast network sledgehammer, makes "Kings" stand apart. Its complexities might also make its chances of success slim.
Starring: Ian McShane.
In addition, fans who tune in and are taken with this mature style of storytelling may be disappointed with future episodes. "Kings" reverses the more usual, more logical tactic: Rope viewers in with something understandable and then layer on the complexities. "Kings" begins with a refined approach and grows more pedestrian in subsequent episodes.
Still, there's plenty to love about this series that dances with symbolism -- the butterfly on the Gilboa flag is not a mere adornment -- and replaces clandestine backrooms with windowed board rooms.
McShane, so good on HBO's late, lamented "Deadwood," brings a spot of Al Swearengen's ruthlessness to King Silas, a more benevolent ruler who wants peace but is goaded into more war by his brother-in-law, who heads up a defense contractor. (Any similarities to former Vice President Dick Cheney and Halliburton are, no doubt, totally intentional.)
The whole cast shines, from veterans such as Thompson to relative newcomer Egan, who displays a believable mix of intelligence and naivete.
The 2008-09 television season has been a huge disappointment for fans of quality dramas. If "Kings" doesn't gain a ratings foothold, its failure may signal that the second golden age of serialized character-driven drama on broadcast network television is at an end.