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TELEVISION REVIEW

'Kings': An ambitious but puzzling take on the Old Testament

The series premieres Sunday on NBC.

March 13, 2009|ROBERT LLOYD | TELEVISION CRITIC

"Kings," which begins Sunday on NBC, is certainly the strangest series to be offered by a major network in this slowly unrolling winter season, a parallel-world modernizing of the biblical story of King Saul and little David, who with his sling slew Goliath and later became king himself. (Goliath in this case is the name of a kind of tank, and the sling is a bazooka.)

Playing like some weird mix of "Dirty Sexy Money" and "Battlestar Galactica" -- though I doubt that was the pitch -- it is an interesting muddle of a show, smart and silly by turns. It's corny, ponderous, literary, ambitious, obvious and, at the beginning at least, as slow as molasses, but continually re-energized by Ian McShane as King Saul, or, as he's known here, King Silas Benjamin, possibly because Saul Benjamin sounded too Jewish.

Whatever religion these people practice -- and there is a lot of calling on God, and the winning and losing of his favor -- it isn't the one followed by the authors of the Old Testament. The King's brood is solidly Anglo-Saxon, or whatever they'd call it in this world. Country boy David (Chris Egan), who is called David Shepherd -- you know why that is, Sunday schoolers -- comes right out of a Norman Rockwell farmhouse. And the prophet Samuel has become the Rev. Samuels (Eamonn Walker), whose presence speaks Black Church -- although Jesus isn't a player in this realm, either. There are mystical butterflies, however: the sign that showed Silas his destiny and the sign that shows Silas David's destiny.

As Saul was the first king of Israel, so King Silas has created a new nation, Gilboa, and raised a great city, Shiloh, from which to rule it. (Shiloh is basically New York with digital alterations.) The people, seen in great computer-animated crowds, make happy sounds, even though a war is still being fought against the kingdom of Gath, a few hours away. (It's as though the United States were at war with Canada, if Canada were more like Russia -- Gath has a "premier" and a military culture.) It's in this war that David not only slays a Goliath, but rescues the king's son, Jack (Sebastian Stan), and so becomes a media star and a threat to the king.

"Kings" is naturally a little more elaborate than the biblical version, which is pretty much a sketch. It doesn't recast biblical themes so much as realize a Neat Idea -- I picture creator Michael Green, who worked formerly on "Heroes," coming up with it while sitting through the haphtara at some friend's child's bar mitzvah. Catching the concordances can make for a fun game: David, a harper in the Bible, becomes a pianist (they have Beethoven in this world). "Saul has slain his thousands, David his ten thousands" becomes "I see Silas commands his thousands while David brings his hundred thousands," referring to the money donors who are willing to pay to sit next to each at a ballet opening. There are also what strike me as references to contemporary Middle East politics (and a pair of Shakespearean clowns as palace guards).

But if you factor out the references, you're left with a fairly typical rich-and-powerful-big-family soap opera, peopled with familiar types doing largely predictable things. Son Jack, once rescued and home, turns out to be a bit like "Gossip Girl" antihero Chuck Bass, angry, dissolute, full of issues; daughter Michelle (Allison Miller), a healthcare activist who likes David, returns again and again to unsuccessfully petition her father in his court overlooking what we in this world know as Columbus Circle. Wife Rose (Susanna Thompson) is a subtle power behind the throne, whose brother (Dylan Baker) controls the treasury through his very own military-industrial complex.

It can all get a little pretentious. Green's language slips into King James Bible cadences and poetic word inversions. Sometimes it gets away from him completely, as in David's peacemaking speech to the Gaths, overwrought and overwritten and, in any case, delivered to an audience too far away to hear him, even if they weren't sitting inside tanks. Though they somehow do.

And yet McShane is equal to the script's most extreme theatricality. He's an actor with whom age agrees, his prettiness having fallen away to reveal the substance below, every line on his face conferring an extra degree of authority, amplified by a voice that smacks of Scotch, black coffee and handfuls of earth. Rather like his Al Swearengen on "Deadwood," McShane's Silas is a man who identifies his own fortunes with that of his country, to the point that he has no compunction over putting his enemies away. But he's also full of humor and love, and is far and away the best reason to check this odd thing out.

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robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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'Kings'

Where: NBC

When: 8 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-14-LV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with advisories for coarse language and violence)

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