I mentioned a long, long time ago that I was slightly miffed when NBC cancelled Kings. At the time I had watched, I think, three episodes out of the thirteen that aired. I was more upset about losing the show because I was intrigued at its premise, rather than it’s actual merit.
Well, this says something about the strength of my convictions: I only just now got around to finally watching Kings.
I want to first say that the show was good. Actually, the show was excellent. Every episode I’ve seen so far (still have two discs coming in from Netflix) has been well-written, and the story 100% has me by the cockles. I can’t not know how it ends.
I want to secondly say that I don’t regret not jumping on the show on premiere night, in the hopes that it caught on. I hate it when I latch onto a new show that fails to grab hold; my life is richer for not subjecting myself to that kind of torment each season. In this brave new frontier of DVD boxed sets and digital downloads, I can watch whatever show I want at a time of my own choosing. TV networks are fossils; someday their system of measuring ratings will catch up to the way people are actually watching TV now, and on that magical dawn there will be something to watch other than crime dramas.
Anyway, Kings itself, then.
The premise of the show is distractingly simple: what if America was a monarchy? The culture on display is American, through and through, except the government is a monarchy instead of a republic. The king wears a fitted suit instead of a gilded crown, but he is still the king. Uncouth comments about Bush or Obama don’t even apply; even on their worst day, the US president couldn’t, say, open all the mail in a major city just because he felt like it.
The two key differences, I suppose, are 1) the king rules for life, and 2) the king’s word is final. Aside from these differences, government largely works the way it does here in reality; courts, free press, a room full of bickering politicians, and so on.
If that were all the show was, I would still have been hooked. The allure of power, the machinations of politics, the maneuvering… years ago, I loved The West Wing for just these reasons. In the previews, Kings looked to be just a different flavor of The West Wing.
The show quickly introduces several new elements, though. Gilboa (the fictional kingdom where the show takes place) is presented in a sort of dreamlike state. The dialogue finds a happy medium between contemporary parlance and… something slightly more regal. Characters choose their words very carefully, and slip into poetic metaphor you’d never hear in casual conversation today. Not in every scene, mind you; just often enough to remind you that, yes, you’re watching a fairy tale.
And this is a fairy tale; the show is sprinkled with just enough of the supernatural to flavor it without becoming overwhelming. For example, in this world, God is real. That’s an aspect of royalty we typically don’t think about in a world where most powerful societies favor democracy: kings used to rule this world by divine right. They looked for signs, waited for divine inspiration. Guidance from on high is what gave them the right to rule.
Now, we know from our history that’s not really how it went down. Who got to be king was often decided by who brought the biggest army to the field, or who arranged the best marriages, or who piled up the most gold. But the myth of divine providence — that’s the story of it, and that’s the plot Kings goes with. Wrestling with the demands of modern society while trying to keep God’s favor is one of the central themes to the show.
There are other important ways Gilboa differs from the US. For one, it’s embroiled in a lengthy, bitter war with a neighboring country — a sensation the US hasn’t felt since we fought the Indians. America understands “war” as something that happens very far away. The worst case scenario is, you get sent to the war, and then come back from it in a box. The thought of war happening right here, on our own soil, is very alien to us, and likely to remain so for as long as we have the ocean to either side. I mean, Canada ain’t gonna up and start some shit.
So when the king of Gilboa has to decide whether to send troops forward, or to call them back, he’s balancing a lot more than military budget justifications or political pandering. If he’s wrong, he might have tanks in his backyard a week hence.
None of this really comprises the storyline of Kings; the actual events that transpire over the course of the show have much more to do with the day-to-day existence of the royal family and those who surround them. But all this provides buckets and buckets of context… a framework that helps to understand this world which is both similar and foreign to us.
A somewhat simpler reason to enjoy the show is Ian McShane. He’s always at his best when he’s giving passionate monologues and, in the role of King, he gets a lot of opportunity to do exactly that.
So I can’t wait to get the last two discs in the mail, and I’ll probably have to order the boxed set off Amazon. It can sit on my shelf next to Firefly and The Black Donnellys and several other shows I made the mistake of enjoying before they found their footing. The difference between “The Complete Series” and “The Complete First Season” is well-known to me.