Is it better for a TV show to be consistent or surprising? Is it worse for it to be ridiculous or boring? NBC's unorthodox new drama Kings (Sundays, 8 p.m. E.T.) comes down solidly on the latter side of those questions. Some viewers will say it's fascinating. Others will say it's pretentious hoo-ha. Allow me to split the difference: Kings is fascinating pretentious hoo-ha.
The premise of Kings is unlike that of anything else on TV: a reimagining of the biblical story of David, set in the modern world. Or an alternative version of it, where democracy never developed, where a King holds court in a skyscraper, where God speaks to man with signs and portents while man uses cell phones and the Internet. (Read "Finding God on YouTube.")
The nation of Gilboa, led by King Silas Benjamin (Ian McShane) based on the Bible's Saul has been at war for generations, most recently with neighboring Gath. His son Jack (Sebastian Stan) is taken hostage at the front but is rescued by David Shepherd (Chris Egan), who destroys a supposedly invincible Gath tank a "Goliath," natch by slinging a grenade duct-taped to a wrench. David is called to court in the gleaming new capital, Shiloh, where the cunning Silas parades him as a hero and eyes him as a potential rival.
There's no getting around it: Kings is a bizarre, disorienting hybrid of a show. For starters, there's the language, half-contemporary, half-archaic: "We sign our names, we shake hands, and future ghosts know us for our contributions, not our wars," says Silas at a treaty negotiation. Kings is lucky to have McShane, who, as a philosophical criminal in Deadwood, effortlessly breathed out David Milch's mix of obscenity, frontier talk and Shakespeare. Here, leonine, menacing and thoughtful, he makes Kings' quasi-biblical declamations seem natural as well as the idea that a First World Western country would be run by a tyrant in pinstripes, selected as King by God, who made a crown of butterflies alight on his head as a sign of divine mandate. (Gilboa's emblem is a butterfly, a symbol made unexpectedly ominous by its resemblance to an upside-down NBC peacock.) (See the top 10 TV series of 2008.)
Kings' setting a cleaned-up version of Manhattan is stunning. You're lulled by familiarity, then rattled by reminders say, a scribe following on Silas' heels, scribbling hagiography on a tablet computer that this is a very different place. But some of creator Michael Green's inventions are puzzling or simplistic. Gilboa and Gath have modern armies, so why are they facing off across trenches as if it were World War I? (Apparently so that David can have dramatic moments walking across enemy lines.) Gilboa is an advanced capitalist state, so how can Silas be manipulated by his brother-in-law (Dylan Baker), who runs a single corporation so powerful it can bankroll the entire government?
It's easy to overlook these faults and Kings' taste for melodramatic cheese, slathered with an overheated operatic score when McShane is onstage. But Egan's David is an upstanding stiff, and when Egan gets a McShanian monologue at the end of the two-hour pilot, he sounds ridiculous. The subplots involving Jack and Gilboa's gilded nightlife play like a bad marriage of The Tudors and Gossip Girl.
Yet I'd rather watch Kings than a number of other less daring, more consistent dramas. Why? Because it surprises me and takes chances (like basing a drama on religion without being snarky or saccharine). Because it has ambitions that broadcasters have all but ceded to cable, and sometimes it even meets them. Because it creates a world rather than borrowing one. And because I'm willing to be patient with a show that has learned sling-wielding David's timeless lesson: Sometimes it pays to aim big.