By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 8, 2009
"We've seen this movie before," says the crabby old king to a loyal subject. Indeed we have, and perhaps even on NBC, the network about to unload "Kings" on a primed-and-pumped viewing nation. The network seems to expect big things of "Kings," but it's questionable whether a sufficiently sizable audience will take to its artsy-smartsy mumbo jumbo.
One aspect of "Kings" seems a fait accompli: Young Chris Egan, who plays handsome war hero David Shepherd, appears certain to become a star -- not an overnight sensation, since he's been a fixture in such past productions as "Everwood" and "Vanished" but bound to make a big fat splash. As made up for "Kings," Egan is so blondly Aryan he could pass for the teenage Naziboy of "The Sound of Music," but he manages to make a character full of contradictions -- shy and sheepish one moment, bold and articulate the next -- impressively convincing.
Otherwise, "Kings," billed as "a contemporary retelling of the timeless tale of David and Goliath," hasn't a great many attractive attractions, and it could be that TV's population of weird-and-wacky fantasy-dramas has reached its fateful tipping point, also known in media circles as "Enough, already."
Television, of course, has always been the medium of way more than enough, a Hellzapoppin of trends aplenty -- be they sitcoms, game shows, or so-called reality programs. "Kings" represents a genre that until recent years was scarce in prime time, one that might be called Video Fantastique. It's pop surrealism to counterbalance all that pop reality, though the trend might actually have started way back in 1990 with David Lynch and Mark Frost's "Twin Peaks," the flaky hit that probably prompted more water-cooler debates than any other show of its time.
For a moment, "Peaks" held the viewing nation in thrall -- but the producers didn't have the imagination, wherewithal or the simple storytelling smarts to sustain interest, much less ravenous passion. "Twin Peaks" died, in only its second season, of unresolved plots, prankish red herrings, and a disregard for the basic tenets of narrative.
Today's surreality shows, heirs to the "Peaks" mystique, recall certain freaky "Peak"-sy features: dream sequences, flashbacks and flash forwards, murky motivations on the parts of some characters, and above all, an open-ended narrative structure that, unlike virtually all TV dramas of the previous 50 years, makes no promises to the audience that the story will reach a fruitful resolution or that all mysteries in the plot will be explained.
"Kings" has the dreamlike, "Twilight Zone" aura of NBC's "Heroes," which figures since it was created by, and its premiere episode was written by, "Heroes" creator Michael Green. "Heroes," with its anything-goes fantasy, might not exist if not for the success of "Lost," the ABC cult hit that dresses up the old warhorse plot about castaways wandering in a wilderness.
To that primal essence, "Lost's" producers added, as ABC publicity notes, such fun fauna as "a mysterious smoke monster, polar bears, a strange French woman and another group of island residents known as 'The Others.' "
"Kings," similarly, has its own grab bag of curiosities. It's set in the mythical kingdom of Gilboa which, as the series opens, is celebrating the completion of a new capital city called Shiloh, a lovely place that looks a great deal like Manhattan with additional oddball buildings computered in. Gilboa has an idyllic and basically pacific presence except for a pesky, very low-tech, on-again-off-again war with hostile neighbor Gath. Although Gilboa exists in some distant, alternate realm, it's nice to know it shares such earthly phenomena as Rolls-Royces and Mercedes-Benzes. Also cellphones, the Internet and butterflies -- bundles and bundles of butterflies, so cherished that a butterfly is the only symbol on the national flag.
The show does have a lush visual glow; its production design and special effects are elaborate and pricey-looking. And it all semi-convincingly seems to be taking place in an alternate universe akin to the "Bizarro World" alluded to occasionally by the characters on "Seinfeld." But "Kings" also aspires to some sort of allegory or fable status that prompts one to search for parallels to that mundane, ordinary, non-monarchical world in which we live; the place where, as glamour puss Lina Lamont said in "Singin' in the Rain," we live out our "humdrum lives." They may be humdrum, but they come closer to making sense than those of the "Kings" population and the plot's largely unsatisfying curves and curls.
NBC's description of the show as a modern-day retelling of David and Goliath is true, but only for about five minutes. David Shepherd -- who's not named "David" or "Shepherd" for nothing -- stands up during a battle to a menacing monster-tank on which is printed in large letters -- you guessed it -- "Goliath." How subtle can you get?
Shepherd is whisked back to Shiloh, where he's heralded, feted and ticker-taped by the citizenry and embraced by King Silas, played with his trademark scowly, growly menace by Ian McShane. The actor put his threatening persona to good use as a vile old villain in HBO's western "Deadwood," but one wonders how so cranky a king could have earned such popularity and respect from the good people of Golibia, I mean Golgotha, I mean Gilboa. As it turns out, the king takes orders from a sinister figure (Dylan Baker) who perhaps represents the military-industrial establishment, especially since he wants to put the kibosh on the king's big peace treaty with the Gathians. I mean the Gathkins. I mean the Gathlicks. Oh, the heck with it.
The big treaty-signing scene, in Episode 2, plays as unintentionally funny, since it echoes the craziness of the Marx Brothers' classic "Duck Soup," set in another mythical kingdom, Fredonia (as no one who's seen it is ever likely to forget). One half-expects Miguel Ferrer, very bald and emitting his customary menace, to shout an indignant "Of course you know, this means war!" Other than Ferrer and young Egan, the cast is not particularly imposing -- though Allison Miller is properly beguiling as David's girlfriend, Michelle, and Susanna Thompson has fun as a queen who does nothing but plan lunches, receptions, state dinners and other ceremonial meals. Perhaps it's meant as a spoof on Nancy Reagan, but that would be mean and dumb. Eamonn Walker, meanwhile, is certainly commanding as the Rev. Samuels, a very God-like clergyman, but your patient critic got awfully tired of waiting for him to reveal what's ailing him and whether he's supposed to be an angel on official business.
For many years, critics and disgruntled viewers complained about the monotonous sameness of prime-time dramas, so many of them just glorified soap operas. The producers and networks who've tried to break out of the old restrictive formats and tedium of conventional drama should theoretically be commended for their apparent adventurism. But "Lost," "Heroes" and others of the ilk appeal to a particular kind of sensibility -- one that doesn't mind if events don't quite add up as long as they keep piling up.
Even on this level, however, "Kings" is deficient, with some scenes so slow-moving that it begins to look as though director Francis Lawrence's favorite movie, and chief inspiration, might well be the stupendously soporific "Meet Joe Black." This show doesn't need spoiler alerts so much as slumber alerts: "Beware, beware, McShane is about to make his big butterfly speech again."
Maybe too many prime-time dramas of yore were inspired by the soaps, but too much of today's scripted television seems to have leapt, or stumbled, out of comic books. We don't need that from TV because we can get it at any multiplex any weekend of the year.
Kings (two hours) premieres next Sunday at 10 on NBC.