Kings: Why NBC’s Prestige Drama Deserved More Love

With Ian McShane, Sebastian Stan, and an ambitious narrative most stories would kill for, Kings should have been a hit.

Who wants to watch a alternate-reality, modern day reimagining of the King David story starring Deadwood’s Ian McShane, Arrow’s Susannah Thompson, and The Winter Soldier’s Sebastian Stan?

For good measure, we’ll have Catching Fire and Mockingjay, Parts 1 and 2 director Francis Lawrence step behind the camera for four of the 13 episodes, and get co-showrunner of the upcoming American Gods TV show Michael Green to write it. (Green also worked on the first two seasons of Heroes.) How’s that sound?

Well, too bad. You already missed it. The dream show I just described is called Kings and it aired on NBC for a brief, glorious run back in spring 2009. No one watched it, and it was promptly moved to Saturdays, then canceled. The popular narrative surrounding its failure, despite its critical approval, is that the show — which aired before prestige-like genre TV hit big — was difficult to market, especially for NBC, a network that hadn’t done anything like this before. Exhibit A…

A killer cast and creative team telling a weird, oh-so-relevant story.

So what makes this quickly-canceled show so special? Well, you may have noticed the actorly, writerly, and director-ly pedigree I referenced at the beginning of this article. Believe it or not, those talented people did as great a job as they always do in crafting a compelling, nuanced story that, six years later, is still like nothing else on TV.

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In Kings’ case, the story being told is that of David (Christopher Egan), a young man from the kingdom of Galboa serving in the war against the Republic of Gath. Following an act of heroism — or weary desperation, if you ask David — the young, naive soldier is pulled into the political intrigues of the Galboan government, led by morally-confused monarch King Silas (Ian McShane).

The ensemble cast is relatively huge and supremely talented. Susannah Thompson (Arrow) plays Silas’ discerning wife Queen Rose, who will do anything for her children. (For real, Queen Rose and Arrow‘s Moira Queen are, more or less, the same awesome character.)

Queen Rose’s industrialist brother, William Cross (Dylan Baker), is the billionaire chairman of the CrossGen Corporation and the man financing Silas’ treasury. As a manufacturer of weapons, CrossGen has a vested interest in the war with Gath continuing — even though soldiers are dying and both states’ citizens are weary of the fighting. (Side note: Cross’ outcast son is played by Macauley Culkin.)

Rounding out the most memorable of characters is Jack Benjamin (Sebastian Stan) as the heir apparent to the monarchy. Jack struggles to balance his identities as son, soldier, and prince with his closeted homosexuality. Spoiler alert: it does not go swimmingly, as Silas is intent on his son marrying a woman and producing a future heir. As Silas so lovingly puts it to Jack: “If you were my second son, I wouldn’t care, but for a king it’s not possible … You cannot be what God made you, not if you mean to take my place.” 

British actor Eamonn Walker (Oz) also recurs (but is sadly underutilized) as Reverend Ephram Samuels, a man trying to save the soul of the king — and the country. Kings has an interesting relationship to religion. The story is obviously inspired by one of the more famous tales from the Bible, but Kings treats religion as a knowing, but ambiguous source. Does God have a plan here? Is it good? Is it bad? Can you debate with him about it, as Silas often does? It’s fascinating stuff, even if you’re not particularly religious — and questions that aren’t often asked on TV in any nuanced manner.

A setting familiar, yet foreign.

Let’s talk about the setting of Kings, shall we? This show has an uncanny feel to it, as if we are looking at our own society reflected in a (grand, ornately-decorated) mirror. Filmed in New York City, the metropolis stands in for capital city Shiloh and the show looks gorgeous. That ordered elegance is reflected in much of the language. The dialogue is heightened, with an archaic, Shakespearean lilt to it that makes everything these Galboans say feel just a little foreign, yet oddly familiar. Think a cross between Lord of the Ringsand Hannibal. 

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Another thing Kingsdoes well is explore the relationship between the state, corporations, and the media. (A theme, in part, that made this past summer’s Mr. Robotso very interesting.) Like television itself, Silas’ monarchy is one ruled far away from the everyperson it represents (or, in TV’s case, is looking to sell to). This is why David’s arrival is such an interesting tension to play with.

As a country boy who never asked for a seat at the table, but feels some kind of responsibility to be there, David’s character may be the most cliche thing about this weird, novel show — but that’s not necessary a bad thing. Often, the protagonist of a story is often the least interesting character — i.e. Harry Potter. As the character who drives the narrative, he has other responsibilities. And the ways other characters react to David’s presence is oh-so-telling. 

A visual style shaped by the man who made Hunger Games epic.

At a budget of roughly four million dollars per episode, this show looked good. It looked especially good within the context of network television of 2009. (Yes, the median aesthetic of TV has noticably improved in the past six years.) This is in no small part thanks to the incredible direction from Francis Lawrence, who you may know from his direction of the last three The Hunger Gamesinstallments.

Lawrence directed the first four episodes of Kings, which means his visual style is infused into the very fabric of this show. He set the stage for everything that would come after, at least aesthetically. (No doubt showrunner Michael Green had something to do with the visual style, too.) And you can see some of the visual themes that would become signature in The Hunger Games first at work in Kings: a subtle dystopian vibe grounded in the real-world grittiness of war and the tangible freshness of the natural world. 

There are also more overtly beautiful scenes: a crown of butterflies landing on David’s head or a scene in which Silas stands on a stormy rooftop, demanding God listen.

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So what happened?

For a TV show to successfully launch, a million different things need to go right. Theorizing on what went wrong with Kings is probably a fool’s game. But it is worth noting that Kings’marketing left much to be desired. The promos didn’t do a very good job articulating what the show was about. NBC seemed nervous to highlight the show’s Biblical inspiration, staying away from the integral themes of religion and destiny altogether.

It also probably didn’t help that Kings was like nothing else on the peacock network. Branding is slightly less important to network TV than it is for cable or premium channels, but it still matters. NBC didn’t have anything else like Kingson its schedule, and that likely hurt Kings, especially in a TV-watching age when watching shows in non-traditional forms was less of a thing. (Yes, that much has changed in six years.)

Every television season, the ability to rewatch or catch up on old episodes becomes easier and available to a wider demographic of people. This has made television-watchers more interested in serialized dramas than ever before. If Kingsdebuted now, I wonder if it would have an easier time building its audience.

Following the cancellation of the show, showrunner Michael Green wrote a heartfelt letter to fans, commenting on the ending of the show (via io9)…

The outcome of Kings was heartbreaking to all of us who worked so hard and had such a wonderful time making it. Every moment on screen represents stories, conversations, arguments, decisions by dozens — hundreds — of blazingly talented, always impassioned people.

It was a difficult show to make. We had to fight for every choice, so we thought each one through.

Many involved with the show felt wronged by our network, or at least scuttled. I personally don’t feel I have enough information to know precisely what led to our failure to achieve ratings success — though I believe that had the show been given a better launch, the outcome would have been something to celebrate…

Even if it is tempting to trash NBC, we do owe them gratitude. Writing, acting, filming is about the work, not the reward, and NBC allowed us to make the best possible show we could. They let us film in New York. They let us assemble a cast without equal on the network landscape. A group of actors who came ready every day to spin the broken-meter mouthfuls we wrote for them into song. 

Kingsfailure was notable for fans of the show, but was influential in a much larger sense. NBC hasn’t tried anything quite as ambitious in the six years that have followed. That’s not a coincidence, and it sucks that Kings’ failure was not only a death knell for the show itself, but a death knell for ambitious, prestige-like drama on NBC. Though it’s kind of hard to blame the network for that decision, it is still disappointing.

Luckily, we live in a pop culture universe where even the least successful of properties live on. You can watch all 13 episodes of Kings for free via NBC’s streaming video player.

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Note: In an earlier version of this article, we referenced a 2008 Forbes article implying that corporate sponsor Liberty Mutual had censorship privileges on aspects of Kings’ scripts. Showrunner Michael Green refutes this in a 2008 Newsarama article, saying: “It was reported like they were calling the shots on the show and telling me what to do, which is something I found extremely distasteful. It was completely untrue. I had invented a world that had no commercial products and no pop culture reference to our own so that I couldn’t advertise products on the show.”