Kings bills itself as a modern-day retelling of the David and Goliath story. The challenger, in this case, is farm-boy soldier David Shepherd (Christopher Egan), on the front defending his country of Gilboa. In the series premiere, Goliath is not a giant, but a tank from the opposing army of Gath. As in the Bible, Shepherd bests the tank.
Shepherd’s act of bravery takes him to Shiloh, the crown jewel city in Gilboa’s contemporary monarchy (a stark, corporate, alternate-reality version of New York City). There, he runs into another Goliath, larger and scarier than giants and tanks: celebrity. His folk heroism gains him access to the royal family, including the hard-partying prince, Jack Benjamin (Sebastian Stan) and idealistic princess, Michelle (Allison Miller). Shepherd has to decide if he should leverage his new fame to get a foothold into this upper echelon, or stay true to his values and help his widowed mother back on the farm.
An opposite view of fame — looking down from the top — belongs to King Silas Benjamin (the delightful Ian McShane, who acts like a benevolent Santa Claus one moment, and in the next, gives the most withering look to an underling who dares to stand up before he does). Having brought some semblance of peace to his country, King Benjamin has to juggle the wants of his people and the needs of his kingdom — all while making sure he holds on to his crown. Symbolically, of course: he prefers business attire to robes and a crown (“My father likes suits,” the prince says).
What’s most striking about Kings is its ambition — its wide-ranging creation of a world to surround its class-divided characters. Within the first three episodes, Gilboa’s history is outlined, including major enemies and disputed territories. The place has a specific look: glossy, minimal, and bold, like its signature orange butterfly flag. We know about its treasury, major corporations, “free” press, health care system, the state of its arts and culture. (The bad news, parallel to our own reality, is that none of these institutions is doing well.) We learn as well the official views on religion, though that is because God — and, just like in the Bible, God does have influence over the events — has a mouthpiece in Reverend Ephram Samuels (Eamonn Walker).
While Gilboa’s political theater plays out on a global level, there’s plenty of soapy drama on Kings, which is executive produced by Heroes‘ Michael Green. Shepherd — much like, say, a Minnesotan dropped in the middle of glamorous West Beverly High — is an innocent negotiating a world of corrupting privilege. He knows he doesn’t belong in Shiloh. “No one talks about the war here,” he says. “And the city smells like trash.” Yet he won’t turn down an invitation for a night on the town with Prince Jack, knowing that all velvet ropes would be cast aside for him, and ignorant of all the trouble his changing status will bring.
Even without Shepherd, the royal family is rife with intrigue and spectacle. Perhaps the most fun to watch is Queen Rose Benjamin (Susanna Thompson, acting with perfect icy detachment), who functions as the show’s Lady Macbeth. She enthusiastically tends to the position of Queen, commanding her household with a sense of her own destiny. “Battles have been lost for want of a dessert spoon,” she warns the help before a big official dinner. Then, treacherously, she twirls around and pretends that her influence is meaningless to her. “You know that I don’t get involved in politics,” she says.
Repeatedly, Kings shifts from personal to political conflicts, intimating that they are, after all, the same thing. Whether disputes occur between two nations or two people, all the relationships here have to do with power. Players do what it takes to get and keep it, exploiting others and making sacrifices. King Silas and David Shepherd are alike in that they both wonder if, in the end, those sacrifices are worth it.
Kings is unlike anything else on television. There are no doctors, no lawyers, no procedures. The characters even speak differently; their dialogue sounds like updated Shakespeare. It provides mythology and symbology, like Lost, especially in Biblical allusions and references. On the other hand, even Gossip Girl fans can find something to enjoy in the personal and social struggles of the elite. Combing broad strokes and detailed color on an extensive canvas, Kings makes the rewards and costs of ambition plain for all to see.