In the country of network television

June 19th, 2009

… the one-eyed man is “Kings.”

In other words, the show’s not perfect, but it’s a remarkable effort for network TV. Let’s talk about what works and doesn’t work in “Kings.”

What works, surprisingly enough, is the show’s theology, which is probably the main reason that it got cancelled. We like our religion in this country, but nobody, and I mean nobody, wants to deal with the God of the Hebrew Bible. The moody, sacrifice-loving God of “Kings” acts in on human events, but obliquely, conveying his wishes through double-yolked eggs, extinguished candles, and the like. He seems to have very particular notions about border control, and few thoughts at all for the soldiers and civilians who die defending those borders. He is a God far more concerned with building a nation than with constructing a moral code. He is infinitely involved in the minutia of the lives of the elite–the king and his family, the priests, the arms merchants–and utterly indifferent the vast population of “Gilboa,” who, presumably, worship and offer sacrifices just as their leaders do.

“Touched by an Angel” it’s not. There’s a reason that nobody, with the possible exception of a few fringe elements in the Israeli settlements, worships this idea of God anymore.* This is the God of national honor and glory, not universal peace and justice. So kudos to “Kings” for actually trying to grapple with a vision of God that is deeply disturbing and unappealing to modern sentiments–and that’s right there in your Bible in black and white. It’s a bold choice. “Kings” does a much better job than “Lost” or “Battlestar Galactica” ever did of setting out the rules of engagement with the supernatural from the beginning. You know starting off that God is real, that he has a plan, and that he communicates with certain people but that it is possible to misinterpret his wishes. Both “Lost” and, most egregiously, “Battlestar Galactica,” tend to pull in the supernatural elements whenever they can’t explain a plot point logically, a narrative gap-mending role less appropriate to God than to grout.

Perhaps the producers are still relying too much on the show’s Biblical conceit, however, because the alternative-universe elements of the show are a great disappointment. God dropping hints to his favored ruler like so many mints on a hotel-room pillow? Fine, I can believe that. An absolute monarchy in a nation with a free press? Now that strains my credulity. Although “Kings” works well as a family drama, the show fails to flesh out the kind of nation that Gilboa is. How much power does King Silas really hold? Do all Gilboans believe in God, and do they all agree on what God wants from them? Why was Gilboa at war with Gath? What does God think about Gath? Is he their God too? Why was the king’s son allowed into direct combat? (I seem to recall this being a controversy overseas when Prince Harry signed on for Afghanistan.) What was the form of government in Gilboa before the monarchy? How did Shiloh become so technologically advanced? Was Queen Rose being literal when she said that Silas took Gilboa from virtual hunter-gatherer existence to the 21st century? How the hell did that happen if so, and why aren’t more people walking around looking like Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer?

It’s good theology. It’s really, really bad science fiction. It’s bad television writing overall, really. One of the themes of modern high-quality television is going beyond the character or small social group to look at the larger world in which the dramas play out. “Deadwood” and “The Wire” are more about the founding of civilization and the nature of institutions, respectively, than they are about any given character. “The Sopranos” invites viewers to compare and contrast the ethics and etiquette of the Mafia with that of affluent middle-class America. “Battlestar Galactica” painted a nuanced picture of a society in which women’s rights were a given but social class left scars so deep they almost functioned as caste markers. “Kings” only focuses on … the king, and his God, and his family, and his rival. It would have been a better show if they had named it “The Kingdom.”

*Modern Jews do not worship the God of the Hebrew Bible (aka the “Old Testament.”) A common misconception among non-Jews is the idea that Judaism kind of stopped after Christianity began. This is like thinking that English history ended in 1776, because we have America now. Judaism continued to evolve, write a whole ‘nother holy book, and developed a concept of God that goes well beyond the violent tribalism of the first five books of the Bible.


One Response to “In the country of network television”

  1. Jim on July 20, 2009 8:26 am

    Not sure I agree w/ the charectorization of the biblical like God in this story, could the fault be in flawed people’s interpretation….food for thought.

    I really have enjoyed the program, although the time slot doesn’t work for me, COmcast is beating my out of $0.99 per episode for the ‘On Demand’ version.

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