The Idiot Box - Kings

Over the last couple years, I spent a lot of time thinking about story. Partly, this was based on discussions with Don, who's wrapping up a book about story, and partly because it's because I want to learn the gears and cogs that make certain stories work.

One of the most fascinating aspects of story is how intelligent the listener becomes. We catch every little flaw and drooping boom mike, feel hollow at every loose end.

The difference is moral, too. In my real life, I can be impatient and quick to anger, and I can explain it away with any number of factors, like I'm hungry or tired or I had a bad day at work. But if I see a character acting that way, I know immediately that impatience and temper are bad. That doesn't mean the character isn't sympathetic, but actions strike a visceral chord in story.

Which brings me to NBC's new drama, Kings, a drama set in some sort of future world where the world is once again ruled by royal families. The show is based on the life of King David, beginning with David slaying Goliath (in this case, one of the enemy's feared armored units). The show's intriguing previews, excellent concept, and Biblical roots were a big draw for me. But, as is often the case, the execution is wanting.

The problem is implausibility. Kings throw so many lazily written scenes out, that it's hard to tell if they believe the audience is stupid, or just have no understanding of how the world actually works. Here's a list of things the writers of Kings would have you believe:
- That two modern countries could go from war to peace celebrations to war again, and then back to peace within the span of a few days, all for no apparent reason as far as the public is concerned.

- That an exploding grenade in a pigeon coop would not kill the pigeons, but only send them flying away.

- That Ian McShane is just as awesome when he's not swearing, running a saloon/whorehouse in the 19th centry American West, and doesn't have the name "Al Swearengen".

- That the gatekeepers of the main palace would be two Shakespearean clowns, and they would also do various other tasks around the kingdom, like lobbing grenades into pigeon coops, and delivering pianos to war heroes.

- That an army would capture the opposing army's Crown Prince, a celebrity playboy, then detain him in a lightly guarded tent approximately 200 yards from the opposing army's front line.

- That the frontlines of an opposing army would be guarded by tanks unequipped with night vision.
The biggest absurdity the viewer has to swallow, though, is the character of David.

The show begins with David Shepherd (subtle, right?) on the front lines of the war. Believing captured soldiers are being hidden in that tent, approximately 200 yards away, David sneaks out in the middle of the night to rescue them. He creeps his way across no man's land, crawls under a tank (and past the one man roving patrol) and cuts his way into the tent, freeing the two captives inside.

As they make their way back across no man's land, the tanks roar to life, and David pushes the two POWs on, standing alone to fight the tanks himself with a rocket launcher and grenade. Finally, when it seems there is no way out, he stands to face the Goliath tank, when suddenly an explosion rips through the tank and David escapes to safety. The photos of him standing against the tank become a media sensation, and David is a war hero.

But wait! David is not as courageous as he seems! As his brother lies dying from an attack weeks later, David tearfully admits he was not standing up to the tank, but surrendering...he was a coward after all! Sure, he crawled alone across enemy lines, freed two captive soldiers, then fought off two tanks singlehandedly when the rescue operation broke down. But he's not really that courageous, the writers want to explain. He's conflicted. He's like us!

The real David is one of the most intriguing, conflicted characters in the most famous book of all-time. The writers could have focused on his ambition, or his lust for women and power, or his unease with how skilled he was in war. Instead, they hinge David's inner conflict around being secretly cowardly. It's lazy and bland, and it makes David Shepherd a shiny, polite do-gooder rather than an actual character.

Kings is different enough that it may have found a niche audience years ago, but viewers have come to expect more from television, and we are less accepting when storytellers try and slip one by us. Without some healthy respect for the story's origins and modern audiences, Kings is another example of modern Biblical storytelling falling sadly short.


  1. We laughed heartily at the butterflies scene, then decided to never watch this show again. We just couldn't take it seriously. Meanwhile, we found Ian McShane in an 80s Britcom (on DVD)called "Lovejoy" and we are enjoying that very much.

  2. Great post, Jordan. I gave this show two chances and gave up. And you explained why.

  3. I love this post!
    It's true what you say about the audience being intelligent; your average viewer has a lot more going for them than the average script writer seems to think.
    My favourite example of this occurs in the movie Prince Caspian, where Miraz has a great army assembled against the Narnians. The High King Peter's strategy? Full attack on Miraz's castle near the other side of the country! Charge!

    Wait... what?

    I understand the changing of events in a novel for pacing reasons, but Prince Caspian was already superbly paced. Flashbacks, Mystery and discovery at first, then a building anticipation and tension of a final showdown, culminating in closure and redemption. Couldn't ask for more.
    Wait... maybe you could add a teen romance! And more explosions!

    I came out of the cinema feeling like they'd done the storytelling equivalent of painting red stick figures on a Monet to improve the 'character and lighting mood'.

  4. hm.. ouch.
    The beginning of your post had me excited. The stuff you miss when you live in another country: I had not yet heard of this!

    but, by the end, I am realizing how much of American culture I don't miss.

  5. Thanks for the feedback, folks. I should mention I have not watched the fourth episode, and the AV Club's Leonard Pierce likes the show (you can find his recaps at http://www.avclub.com/tvclub/tvshow/kings,70/). You might notice he uses the phrase "Shakesperian clowns" in much the same way I did. I promise I did not copy him.

    It's also not that Kings is all that awful, it's just not as good as it should be, especially with the advance of television dramas in the last 10 years.