Though well served on the silver screen, Bible dramas have never found a willing audience on the small one, unless you count Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, which most people have watched only on television. A 1999 miniseries about the life of Jesus got good reviews from critics but failed to generate much interest from viewers, perhaps because it avoided controversy (despite the tantalizing possibilities of Gary Oldman portraying Pontius Pilate). What a shame, then, that NBC’s terrific new drama Kings, a modern reimagining of the story of David, has struggled with low ratings and rumors of early cancellation, as if to fulfill some dire prophecy about God and prime time.
Much of the appeal of Kings lies in its source material. The English critic Duff Cooper once remarked that the biblical David must have been based on a real person, because what nation would ever invent such a compromised hero? Warrior, poet, musician, brigand, politician, tyrant, Lothario, polygamist, paterfamilias—Tony Soprano had nothing on the King of Israel. And though the series bears only a superficial plot resemblance to the Book of Samuel, it remains essentially true to its complicated moral spirit.
Kings is set not in the biblical Israel but in Shiloh, a fictional twenty-first-century, Manhattan-like kingdom. In the series premiere, the city has just been consolidated and assured of its sovereignty after the “unification wars” with neighboring Gath, here a synecdoche for all the lands of the Philistines. King Silas Benjamin (meant to evoke the biblical Saul, descendant of the Benjaminites), played with the perfect mixture of charisma and gravitas by Ian MacShane, credits providence for this hard-won accomplishment in his inaugural speech, despite being told by his handlers (likely with the latest New York Times bestsellers list in mind) that “God is not popular these days.” Meanwhile, in the suburb of Port Prosperity, a young David Shepherd watches the inauguration ceremony with his family—minus his father, killed in battle—when the king’s own prelate, Reverend Samuels, drives up to the house with a car in need of repair. David obliges, whereupon Samuels “anoints” him by casually touching his forehead, thereby creating an air of election around an unprepossessing provincial mechanic.
Thus does Kings dispense with much of the biblical backstory, skipping all mention of stolen Arks, golden emerods, and profligate burnt-offerings. In fact, the only numinous elements in this show are airborne: butterflies alight on Shepherd’s head, creating a fluttering diadem that augurs his rise and coming conflict with Silas; he’s also saved from an assassin’s bullet by a well-timed swarm of pigeons.
Fast-forward two years, and Shiloh is once again at war with Gath. Shepherd and his older brother Elias (a stand-in for the biblical Eliab) are sent to the front. Shepherd puts himself in harm’s way by going against orders to rescue a kidnapped battalion of Shiloh soldiers, which includes the king’s club-hopping wastrel son Jack (Jonathan in the Bible, where he’s no martial lightweight). In perhaps the most obvious act of cultural updating, Jack is here depicted as a closeted homosexual, though there’s no hint so far of even an intimately fraternal relationship with David, whereas in the Bible they swear a covenant because David “loved him as his own soul.” Then a career-making confrontation takes place. Our forbidding giant of six cubits and a span is here a Goliath-model tank, and the slingshot that spawned two millennia of underdog metaphors becomes a missile.
Shepherd returns home the conquering hero, a tabloid celebrity welcomed into Silas’s court as its new military liaison to the media. He falls for the Princess Michelle, a health-care lobbyist who has the ear, but not always the indulgence, of her father on policy reform. (Michal, the daughter Saul offers David in exchange for 100 Philistine foreskins, similarly challenges the king by enabling her husband’s escape from him.)
Shepherd’s eagerness to speak out of turn—he twice personally intervenes for peace with Gath—furthers tension with the king he will inevitably replace but who nonetheless sees the young lieutenant as eminently exploitable. Silas navigates a world of personal troubles, including a kept concubine, a chronically ill bastard son, an imprisoned old adversary (loosely based on Agag, the king of the Amalekites, whom Saul spares against God’s wishes, thus bringing about his downfall), and a Machiavellian brother-in-law, William, who apparently appoints and deposes monarchs like board executives. William seems to have been inspired more by the left-wing blogosphere than by Scripture. Servant to no man or deity, head of Shiloh’s largest corporation, he manages to control the media, the military-industrial complex, and the state treasury all at once.
Kings is truer to the Bible than it may appear. For instance, it doesn’t diminish the frisson of the Goliath parable to have the tank destroyed by heavy artillery instead of a more modest weapon. As Robert Pinsky points out in his slim, elegant The Life of David, the slingshot itself was a no-nonsense device, feared and fatally effective for centuries: “The slinger was more mobile than the archer, and with a greater accurate range, some say with a more damaging projectile. The Romans had medical tongs designed specifically for removing the stones or lead bullets shot by the sling to penetrate a soldier’s body, as David’s stone penetrated the skull of Goliath.” So much for asymmetrical warfare.
On the other hand, the show’s producers have introduced a postmodern wag-the-dog scenario that actually complicates David’s divine destiny. Shepherd wasn’t challenging the tank after all, he tells the dying Elias; he was surrendering to it and got a lucky shot off. In the interest of state propaganda, the court-administrated media of Shiloh reported on what the people wanted to see, and in Shepherd’s pursuit of glory and influence, he never bothered to set them right.
Even still, the moral and teleological michegaas is entirely appropriate. In his combined 37-year reign over Judah and then all of Israel, the biblical David will steal another man’s wife and ensure she stays stolen by sending that man to his certain death; he will methodically slaughter most of the Moabites, among whom he once took shelter in flight from Saul, and of whom he is a descendant on his great-grandmother’s side; and he will adopt a passive attitude toward the rape of one of his own daughters by one of his own sons. But he will also love deeply, grieve ostentatiously, and unify and command people in such a way that he comes to be the physical embodiment of the “light unto nations.” If Kings manages to navigate even a fraction of these ambiguities, it’ll prove a minor triumph of serialized adaptation, especially impressive when you consider that it’s just TV, not HBO.