NBC has given us a new series worth watching this season. The drama series boasts a strong cast, and it also takes place in a world that feels fully realized. More than a lot of new shows this season, there's a real sense that "Kings" knows what it wants to be, and that makes for rewarding viewing.
Creator Michael Green, a writer and producer on shows ranging from "Everwood" to "Heroes," has chosen as his source material one of the all-time great stories: that of David from the Bible. Setting it in a modern world that looks much like ours, though, lets Green get at the material in a way that emphasizes the political intrigue and the corruption of power. And while there are hints of a deep backstory for the show, it's not so complicated that viewers will be lost if they happen to miss a week.
Sunday's two-hour premiere opens with King Silas of Gilboa (Ian McShane of "Deadwood") inaugurating his country's new capital city, Shiloh, which he says is the result of 50 years of building and sacrifice, including a war that helped shape the country. We cut quickly to two years later on a battlefield, where Gilboan soldiers are holding the line against the neighboring country of Gath and its fearsome tanks (called, yes, Goliaths).
David Shepherd (Chris Egan) — who watched on TV as Shiloh was christened — is one of those soldiers, and when he leads an impetuous raid on the Gath position to rescue a group of Gilboan prisoners that includes the king's son Jack (Sebastian Stan), he's hailed as a national hero and welcomed into the king's inner circle.
"Kings" balances David's introduction into this world — where his impulsive ways get him into some potentially serious trouble — with ongoing threads about the royal family's public and private lives. Silas is indebted to a shadowy company run by his wife's brother (Dylan Baker, who can play bloodless corporate menace in his sleep) and has ongoing troubles with Gath, and his already strained relationship with Jack becomes even more strained when David enters the picture.
a few seasons back, and frankly I was worried that he wouldn't be able to keep up with the likes of McShane, Baker and Susanna Thompson as the queen. But he proves up to the challenge here, playing David as a young man who's idealistic and maybe a little naive but also cagey when he has to be. A budding romance with the king's daughter (Allison Miller), however, doesn't add much in the early episodes.
Not much else can be said about McShane, who created one of the great characters of my TV-watching lifetime in "Deadwood's" Al Swearengen. King Silas isn't quite the towering presence that Al was, but McShane is still excellent in the role, showing both the calculating (sometimes ruthless) politician and compassionate father Silas is capable of being.
Green has his characters speak a slightly heightened style (that also calls "Deadwood" to mind a little); observing the queen's precise execution of a luncheon, for instance, Silas remarks to the premier of Gath, "My wife commands an army ours wouldn't want to face allied." It works, however, in the world he and director Francis Lawrence (who helmed the first four episodes) have created.
Shiloh is a thoroughly modern city (the series is filmed in New York and uses the city, with a digitally altered skyline, as a stand-in for the capital), but it's also the seat of a monarchy, and Green and Lawrence have fun filling in the details about how that works. At court, Silas sits not on a throne but behind a large conference table. His pronouncements to the royal scribe are down on a PDA. He believes in evolutionary theory but also that he's been chosen by God to lead his country.
The cast, the intriguing storytelling possibilities and the care Green and Co. have taken in crafting "Kings" add up to a pretty fine piece of television, the kind that NBC used to trot out every season. Here's hoping that the series doesn't get caught up in the network's recent bad fortunes and can find a place on the schedule past this spring.
"Kings" premieres at 8 p.m. ET Sunday. Here's a preview: