EPISODE REVIEWS: Kings: "Goliath" (Episode 1)

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You know, every once in a long while I look forward to something a whole lot, and it doesn't disappoint me. It's rare - my standards are high and my patience is low, and let's face it: most of TV is crap - but it does happen. It happened tonight.

"Kings" is good.

Well, at least the pilot is good. We'll see how the series goes, but based on this initial outing I have high hopes.

"Kings" is an Alternate World story - a tale set in a 2009 without a United States, but with an internet and a Franz List (Though he's long dead in this alternate 2009 as well, obviously). In place of the United States (or at least a part of it) is the nation of Gilboa, a confederation of previously-independent countries united under a King.

The King in quesiton is Silas Benjamin (Ian McShane, using his American accent from Deadwood). Twenty or thirty years ago, he was chosen by God (or so he says) and anointed by the Reverend Samuel to be the king of all Gilboa, and thus evidently began the Unification Wars. He won and became the first king of this new nation, and although it's not specificaly stated in the plot, it's strongly implied that most or all of these newly-confederated nations had been fighting each other for quite a long time beforehand, so his accomplishment is fairly impressive.

The story starts out long after this, though, with the dedication of the new national capital of "Shiloh." This is said to be a new city that took twenty years to build, but other dialog says there once was a great city on the same location that was blown in to the dust by "Three separate armies." It was the dream of King Silas to rebuild it, and so he has.

Shiloh is obviously this world's version of New York City, but in keeping with it's now-but-not-here approach, real shots of the city have been digitally edited to make the place look a bit foreign and exotic, but not too much. A kind of "Caprica City" version of New York, I guess.

Now, Gilboa is at war with Gath, which I presume to be this world's analogue of Canada, since the two countries share a border and the terrain looks rather cold, though, of course since we don't know the actual borders of Gilboa itself, it could be Iowa for all I know.

Anyway, Gath's forces have a massive killer tank called a "Goliath" which no one has managed to destroy nor even survive in the year and a half they've been in service. Gath manages to capture an army platoon which is under the command of the king's son, Prince Jack. A buck private gets a feeling or a hunch or a moment of inspiration, and so he disobeys orders and sneaks across the lines to rescue the captives, destroying a Goliath in the process.

This buck private - David Shepherd, get it? - becomes the toast of Shiloh, and gets promoted to Captain, which is a heck of a jump. (As a kid in ROTC, I myself was promoted from Private to Captain as well, but I didn't have to rescue a prince to do it, the instructor just liked me better than the swiss guy who outranked me, so he promoted me over him and put me in charge of PR so he wouldn't have to deal with that other cadet directly) They throw a party in his honor, he dances with the princess, he vaguely annoys Prince Jack, you know, the usual kind of aw, shucks fish-out-of-water stuff. He's then promoted to "Military Lieson" and put in front of the press where he's charmingly profane and staid all at the same time

Meanwhile, King Silas decides to attack Gath. Up until now, they've been fighting a defensive war, but he pushes their advantage (What this advantage is is never made entirely clear, since David took out exactly *one* tank, but oh well.) Gath sues for peace, and Silas signs a peace treaty.

The king's brother-in-law is a wealthy industrialist who opposes peace because this is TV and therefore Capitalism is Bad. If the war doesn't go on for another year, he'll pull all the financing from the kingdom, desttroy it's economy, and ruin Silas. Reluctantly, Silas agrees to use the treaty to suckerpunch Gath, which he does. The Reverend Samuels removes his support for the king, and the king curses God in frustration.

In the fighting that ensues, David's oldest brother, Eli, gets killed. While he's dying, David confesses to Eli that he's not as brave as anyone things, he was actually trying to surrender to the Gaths (Gathians? Gathites? Gathilatanians? Whatever) when his grenade went off, total luck (Or divine intervention?). Eli tells him "Be brave now," and then dies. David marches out in to the middle of the battlefield and makes an impassioned speech that's probably not quite as good as the writers seem to think it is, but it's still *pretty* good, and the Gathistanis agree to negotiations again. The publicity of this forces the King to take them up on their offer. This causes the brother-in-law to believe the whole thing with David was a setup from the start, and *he* withdraws his financial support from the king as well.

The king is well and truely forsook at this point.

As the Brother-in-Law drives away, he conspires with Prince Jack to overthrow Silas. Silas, meanwhile, sees unmistakable proof that God has annointed David to be the new king.

The End.

OBSERVATIONS

First and foremost, my most important observation is that this was a really good pilot, intriguing and opulent, both familiar and strange at the same time. I think they did a very good job of balancing the biblical story of David bar Jessie with their own dramatic needs, so the framework feels comfortable without ever really feeling too constraining. They certianly feel the right to go their own way with the material, and that's kind of a welcome relief because while David is as close to a leading man as you'll find in the Old Testament, over-attention to the details of a story they clearly only intend as a starting-off point would quickly grow stifling. They made the wise choice here, and it feels good. There was not one point in the pilot where I felt like I'd been cheated, or yelled "Oh, come on!" at the screen, so this ends up being a loving tribute to Jesus' great-to-the-13th grandfather, but something new and exciting at the same time.

For instance, I loved the scene when Silas states he believes in God far more than Reverend Samuels believes he does, and then goes on to express his support for evolution, then wraps the whole thing up by saying that Evolution is just one of the many tools God uses to get things done. This is pretty much my own view, which is a middle-ground position that manages to consistently get me attacked from my more evangelical friends and more athiestic friends as well. It was oddly heartwarming to hear someone express the same viewpoint on a TV show, though of course that particular issue may be more tightly tied to my psyche than most peoples. Your mileage may vary.

Likewise, making prince Jack a closeted homosexual is a pretty wild divergence from the biblical source material, since his biblical analogue - Johnathan - is never hinted to be anything other than, y'know,...not.

Conversely, the ways they play it close is just as much fun: Silas Benjamin is the king. King Saul was from the tribe of Benjamin in the bible. David bar Jessie is a shepherd in the bible, and he's named David Shepherd here. He's a musician, songwriter, and harpist in the bible, and here he's got a love affair with the piano. And what is a piano, but a harp turned on it's side? It works just so much better than if he'd been playing guitar, or whatever. King Silas' General of the Armies and cheif hatchetman is "General Abner" and "Abner ben Ner" was a general who fulfilled those same functions for Saul in the bible. Can you have biblical fan service? I feel like this is as close as anyone has ever come, and I got a thrill from these little call-outs to one of the best known stories of all time.

This will no doubt perplex people, though. Liberals and Atheists (not the same thing, though there is some Venn Diagram overlap) will doubtless blow the show off or decry it for being "Overly religious" and "Superstitious." Likewise, conservative Jews and Christians will doubtless tune in expecting to see a pious Kenneth Branaugh version of the story, and insted find a king who blasphemes God, people saying "Son of a b!tch" and, well, a homosexual prince. It's a rough row to hoe, frankly, and though I've been looking forward to this show since it was first announced, I've been dreading how badly and how easily it could be botched. Having seen the pilot, I'm not convinced the show will find much of an audience, but I *am* convinced the producers are up to the challenge of doing a modern riff on a beloved three-thousand year old story. And it's NBC - it's not like anyone's watching. What have they got to loose? At the very least, they get notoriety from it, and at the most they get a Lost-sized hit.

We shall see.

In the Bible, David and Johnathan become fast friends. Interestingly here, "Jack" immediately takes exception to the man, and I have to say the part was played well. Really all the acting in this show was top-notch, but several scenes stand out for me, and the one at the top of the list was when Silas confronts his son over being gay. "Were you my second-born, I wouldn't care, but you are the heir to the throne and it is just not acceptable. Wrestle it down, take cold showers, do whatever you have to do, but if you want power it means you have to put aside the things you love, and you *can not* be as God made you." This would be an easy scene to blow, but it's played perfeclty, with Silas balancing his anguish and hopes, and Jack realizing his cover is blow. Histrionics would kill this, but it's actually rather subdued and the understated way that tears form in Jack's eyes while his father is yelling at him is kind of brilliant. It sells the scene without him having to say anything.

I also liked how Silas kept falling back on his "Butterfly" story, so often and so polished that I started thinking it was all a con, just some hokey "In this sign conquer" nonsense that he made up to motivate the yokels. The final scene - when God clearly chooses David - and Silas' reaction was kind of shocking and moving, you feel David's elation, and Silas' sudden horror. It's well done.

I also liked David's easy charm in the show. He's not a goody-goody, but he is a basically upright young man. I never had any trouble believing that, nor did I have any trouble believing people would just kind of instantly like thim. Good casting all around. Very nice to see one of my favorite character actors - Wes Studi of the Oklahoma Cherokee - as General Abner, and the Princess has just the right balace of prim and improper. I'm interested to see where the Prophet Samuels goes with all this, since at first it seems like he, too, may be just a con man, but at the end it seems like he might really be a prophet.

There were some downsides: I frankly didn't understand the nature of whatever the heck it was Silas was trying to pull when Jack got kidnapped. I re-watched the scene where he discusses it with Samuels, and it still didn't make any sense. While there is some chemistry 'twixt David and the Princess, I felt them making out was a bit too fast, and a bit too passionate as well. Playing it lighter would have helped the scene. The scene where David stops the war by shouting, rather than simply getting shot is a bit of a muddle, but it is kind of over-the-top noble, too, so I'll let it slide.

Bottom line: I liked it, and I was intrigued, and I can't wait to see more.

OPEN QUESTIONS:

What are Gilboa's borders? Is it the US or just a hunk thereof? Or is it just New York? "The Vinyard" could have been Massachusetts, or it could just as easily have been Long Island.

Likewise, where is Gath? And what were they fighting about?

At what point did this show's timeline diverge from our own? It must have been fairly recent, since everyone is speaking English and listen to 19th century german piano composers with recognizable names. *Was* there ever a United States in this timeline? Are we looking at a political situatio that emerged after America fell apart for some reason? Or am I simply reading too much in to this?

I'm wondering what they're going to do with the King's mistress and the illegitimate prince.

We've got three named countries as of this episode: Gilboa, Gath, and Austeria. Not "Austria" but "Austeria" as in "Land of the poor," unless it's spelled in some whacky phoenetic fashion ("Ostereah"). Probably we should keep track of this stuff.

I'm intrigued by

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