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TV Review: ‘Of Kings and Prophets’

With:

Ray Winstone, Olly Rix, Mohammad Bakri, Simone Kessell, Nathaniel Parker, Haaz Sleiman, James Floyd, Maisie Richardson-Sellers, Jeanine Mason, David Walmsley

“What if David of David and Goliath fame was a hottie?” There’s no way of telling whether that was part of the pitch for “Of Kings and Prophets,” but there’s no doubt that the series hews to rules that govern many ABC dramas: There must be a hurtling sense of momentum, there must be attractive people engaging in secret hookups, and the narrative should feature a lot of fast-paced intrigue, double-dealing and deception.

The twist here is that “Of Kings and Prophets” is not set in a boardroom or the White House but in the House of Saul a thousand years before the birth of Jesus, as the 12 tribes of Israel try to unite themselves and fight off troublesome enemies while still obeying the dictates of their unpredictable prophet, Samuel. But wait, there’s more: This careening drama also tries to inject the aesthetics and moral complexity of Westeros into mix, which, if nothing else, makes “Of Kings and Prophets” the first “Game of Thrones”-Old Testament hybrid viewers are likely to get. This year, anyway.

To be clear, the idea of dramatic biblical destinies playing out among feuding Lannister-esque clans is a good one on paper (or parchment, or scrolls or what have you). Unfortunately, the pell-mell way that “Of Kings and Prophets” tries to shove the tribes and their enemies into the confines of a broadcast network drama results in a scattered, superficial narrative that doesn’t gain much traction. Despite the efforts of the varied cast and the show’s directors, who come up with some memorable visuals, those looking for either biblical education or soapy thrills are likely to end up praying for deliverance.

At least “Of Kings and Prophets” avoids one of the glaring mistakes that “Gods of Egypt” made: The ABC series has a truly diverse lead cast. Saul and David are played by white actors — Ray Winstone and Olly Rix, respectively — but they’re the exceptions in the show’s multicultural ensemble, which more accurately reflects the mix of populations of the region, then or now. Also in the show’s favor: Its courtly sets, tents and marketplaces often have a pleasingly realistic level of detail, and some glimpses of the outdoor scenery of South Africa (which stands in for ancient Israel) are breathtaking.

In the main, however, “Of Kings and Prophets” is a messy affair, one that might have benefited from a tighter focus on David, or the Saul-David dynamic. Rix, a newcomer, is actually quite good at conveying David’s regular-guy qualities; somehow this Bethlehem villager with a trusty slingshot and pretty good aim ends up as part of Saul’s court, a development that takes the former shepherd by surprise. Not surprisingly, he catches the eye of one of Saul’s daughters, and it’s easy to believe she’d respond to his casual charm.

The show’s casting directors did a mitzvah by finding Rix and putting him on the small screen, but like most of the rest of the cast, the actor is not given much to work with. There are just too many characters and factions percolating in this at-times overwrought drama, and it’s hard to get a feel for any of them before the narrative whirls off to the next intrigue. If the idea behind the show was to humanize the people depicted in famous Bible tales, the show often falls short in that regard. It doesn’t spend much quality time on character development, and the uneven dialogue reveals that the series can’t quite decide if it wants to be a big, broad melodrama, a buddy picture starring David and his knockabout cousin, or a more nuanced character drama.

Winstone’s performance is a mixed bag as well: On the one hand, one appreciates the ferocity of his commitment to the role of Saul, but on the other, one wishes he’d been given more to do than erupt with rage and frustration, and fulminate against the dictates of the wily prophet, Samuel (Mohammad Bakri). Saul’s frequent shouting and wild mood swings aren’t boring per se, but they grow tiresome over time.

There are several prominent roles for female characters, mainly the women in Saul’s family, but they rarely come into sharp focus, and Queen Ahinoam (Simone Kessell) takes one action that is apparently meant to be surprising, but mostly comes off as an underdeveloped attempt to insert a shocking twist. It’s in the plotting among Saul’s children — his two intelligent daughters and his two ambitious sons — that the show’s desperation to be the next “Game of Thrones” is most apparent, but “Of Kings’ ” lack of depth and its half-hearted attempts at edgy sensuality don’t pose much of a threat to the dominant HBO drama. 

Aping other successful period pieces might have led to better results. “Of Kings and Prophets” tries to build a complete world and sustain an intense momentum, but it never manages to get a sure, steady grasp of its overall narrative goals, as the late, great gladiator drama “Spartacus” did.  Speaking of beard-intensive sagas with lots of action, distinctive atmospheres and surprising spiritual and political depth, “Vikings” does a much better job than “Of Kings” when it comes to tying the characters’ deeply held religious beliefs to their actions. It could have been interesting to explore how much Samuel is actually channeling the word of God and how much he’s is manipulating Saul for his own ends, but in its first three episodes, “Of Kings” doesn’t successfully mine that ambiguity.

Speaking of prophecy, it’s not difficult to foresee the fate of this mishmash of sword-and-sandals epics and sexy nighttime soaps. Given that it was commissioned by ABC’s previous king — er, entertainment president — and given that, under the new regime, the drama is getting a half-hearted midseason rollout, the destiny of this drama seems clear. ABC was to be commended for trying something far afield of the usual doctor-lawyer-cop formulas, but this dark inversion of the myth-driven ABC show “Once Upon a Time” just doesn’t fulfill its potential. All portents point toward doom.

Popular on Variety

TV Review: 'Of Kings and Prophets'

(Series; ABC, Tues. March 8, 10 p.m.) 60 MIN.

Production: Filmed in South Africa by ABC Prods.

Crew:

Executive producers, Michael Offer, Reza Aslan, Mahyad Tousi, Jason T. Reed, Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Chris Brancato; writers, Cooper, Collage; director, Offer.

Cast:

Ray Winstone, Olly Rix, Mohammad Bakri, Simone Kessell, Nathaniel Parker, Haaz Sleiman, James Floyd, Maisie Richardson-Sellers, Jeanine Mason, David Walmsley

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