For fans of Deadwood, the mere name Ian McShane might be enough to tempt you to watch Kings, NBC’s new midseason drama (Sundays 8pm Eastern). But that’s hardly where the attractions end. The show is visually stylish, reminiscent of the 90s Ethan Hawke Hamlet and of Julie Taymor’s Titus Andronicus in that it offers a mixed historical and cultural vibe: urban, corporate, downtown Manhattan meets the dark paneling, pageantry, and aristocratic dynastic feuding of Tudor-Stuart England, complete with state-sponsored murder of public figures who won’t toe the company line (and I mean that literally – this new quasi-American aristocracy headed by Ian McShane as King Silas Benjamin is backed secretly by corporate funding from the king’s brother-in-law). If you ever wanted to watch Rome, The O.C., Deadwood, and Wall Street simultaneously – while reading Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, this show’s for you.
And the production value is high, especially for network: Fans of (the underappreciated) Constantine and I Am Legend, take note that Frances Lawrence is the director (at least of these early episodes). From the opening shot of the young King David-to-be (though he doesn’t know it yet), backlit and surrounded by bits of shining dandelion down while playing with his dog on the family farm to the pilot’s final shot of this same heir apparent being crowned by Nature herself, you will not find a more beautiful new show on television. It’s too soon to say if this show will be smart. Kings’ melodramatic bent may get the better of it, but I hope that it doesn’t. I think our culture could use a television show that dramatizes the necessary tensions and tragedies of a country perpetually at war, and this show does this – though I think it might do it too beautifully to be quite ethical.
The show’s most explicit allusion is to the Old Testament story of David and Goliath – at least that’s the story we have majestically and heavy-handedly invoked in the pilot (available free on Amazon — 4/2 Update: Apparently, the “free” thing was a limited time offer. Now it’ll run you $1.99): only this David is a soldier in the army of a country that seems to be somewhat reminiscent of a U.S. post-9-11, and Goliath is a kind of armored tank used by a northern enemy of this future U.S.-ish country (yes, I know, the idea of Canada at war with the U.S. – slightly implausible; “Canada – the world’s gay friend,” as Jon Stewart once put it). The Australian actor who plays young David, Chris Egan, seems to have been made in a lab from fused bits of DNA taken from Leonardo DiCaprio, Josh Hartnett, and Ryan Phillipe – and he can act, he’s not just easy on the eyes. The abilities of the magisterial Ian McShane (for whom some of the script might have been Deadwood/David Milch-ified to recollect his immortal performance as Al Swearengen) go without saying, as do those of actors like Wes Studi (Magua in Last of the Mohicans) who plays General Linus Abner.
It remains to be seen where Kings is going, but I haven’t seen any television show so beautiful and potentially interesting in a long time. I am usually disappointed, but I hope.