Credit “Kings” creator Michael Green with a bold stroke — recognizing that the biblical tale of King David, recast in modern dress, contains enough lust, violence and political intrigue to provide the underpinnings for a primetime soap. Viewers will have to survive a rocky, at-times jarring first hour before the series begins coalescing into something interesting — flawed but unpredictable, with a characteristically intense Ian McShane at its core. Even so the show is a dice roll, which likely explains why NBC rescheduled it to Sundays, where it will take more than slingshots and prayers to ward off the Philistines.
Frankly, given the wanton godlessness in Hollywood, some might assume NBC bought the show without knowing the Bible connection to David and Saul, not for a lack of clues.
Set in the mythical kingdom of Gilboa, the series features “Eragon’s” Chris Egan as David Shepherd (get it?), a young soldier fighting against neighboring Gath. In an act of courage and desperation, David boldly rescues the king’s son, Jack (Sebastian Stan) — although here by slaying a Goliath tank with the help of a rocket-launcher.
The grateful King Silas (McShane) whisks David back to Gilboa’s capital, Shiloh, which somewhat resembles San Francisco (even though the show lensed in New York). Meant to be exploited for public-relations purposes, the war hero quickly finds a place in the king’s employ — much to the envious Jack’s displeasure — and catches the eye of Silas’ daughter (Allison Miller).
“Tell me what you want and it’s yours,” Silas oozes, an offer accompanied by a vague stench of brimstone.
At first it all feels a trifle clunky, from the king’s seat of power being modeled after a corporate board room (seriously, would more ambitious costume and production design have broken the bank?) to the underlying plot of one honorable soldier tempted by power and corruption.
The two-hour premiere, however, ends with a whiff of prophecy, and the third hour ratchets up the drama with a fine guest appearance by Brian Cox, parallels to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a growing role for Silas’ steely queen (Susanna Thompson), and rising tensions involving the king’s grasp on his throne, as he’s pushed and pulled at by a religious leader (Eamonn Walker) and his brother-in-law (Dylan Baker).
Finally, seeing McShane back in episodic form — his voice a low, mesmerizing rumble — is a welcome treat, even if Silas doesn’t approach the ruthlessness achieved by McShane’s Al Swearengen back on “Deadwood.” By hour four (all of them directed by Francis Lawrence), “Kings” has begun to assume a life of its own, beyond the cutesiness of simply identifying whatever biblical references one can recall from napping through Sunday school.
Alas, having lost its onetime designation as “ER’s” Thursday replacement, the show must now grapple with a timeslot where it will have to be self-starter. Based on his blessed existence, David may be equal to the task, but for a slightly offbeat new drama on NBC, surviving may require a miracle.