Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The New Improved Old Testament

Kings is finished. People avoided the show in droves. The ratings didn't drop precipitously, they were bad from the first episode. The same was true for The Book of Daniel. Although there wasn't an organized campaign against Kings as for Book of Daniel, I'm pretty sure that religous suspicions were a major cause of the widespread disinterest. People just didn't think a reboot of the Bible was needed. Perhaps the nature of the show was not as well understood as I believe, though.

The strong implication that God wants land for peace, although soundly based in the best official traditions of Christian ethics, has an impertinent relevance to contemporary politics. When Kings explicitly shows soldiers rousting citizens (settlers in the real world,) it has an uncomfortable sharpness. The thing is, that land for peace, is very much a Christian improvement on the real OT. On the other hand, the insistence for peace just might be why God has turned against Silas (the series name for Saul.) Having it both ways is typical for would be edgy television, which usually has it the accepted way. Genuinely bold TV by my lights takes a dissident position. Asking hard questions is easy, contrary to the idiots who liked BattleStar Galactica: It's answering the hard questions that's difficult.

Another improvement on the OT is the treatment of David and Jonathan. Now, the love passing the love of women simply cannot be ascribed to the glorious Son of God (a title for a King, after all,) so Jonathan, who is dubbed Jack in the series, is an enemy of David. This is because he sees David as a rival, just as does Saul. This turns Jack into another EVIL HOMO. By dramatic jujitsu, his evilness is rooted in his sacrificing his gayness for power. His true love, definitely not David in the corrected version offered here, even commits suicide as he outs Jack, in order to liberate his true self from the sacrifices required for power. And Silas' fury and contempt at Jack's gayness is just another aspect of Silas' evil. The role of religion in justifying homophobia pretty much disappears. Actor Sebastian Stan, whose career has probably peaked, should get a supporting actor Emmy for selling this stuff. (Ian McShane naturally should get the best actor and Susanna Thompson, a Book of Daniel alumna, should get best supporting actress, too.) Naturally, David's true love is Michelle, Michal in the OT. The Bible's loud proclamation that David wouldn't even fuck her is tactfully unforeshadowed.

Wes Studi did a one note performance as Abner, who is killed off here, unlike the OT. He adequately captures the murderous nature of the Biblical Abner, but it is necessarily one note. Abner being a henchman for David as well as Silas would give away too much, so this is another of the improvements. Dylan Baker plays brother in law William Cross, a tycoon responsible for much plotting for war and palace revolution. He is a totally fictional character. Adding a fictional villain allows uncomfortable questions about how a villainous Silas could once have God's approval as king.

The land for peace position on Palestine is merely officially US policy. The real policy is total US support for Israel in its conquest of the Promised Land. It appears that the show knows this, hence the careful ambiguity about Silas' peace program. Or was it David's? Would David's progressive disillusion with Silas come to include the cession of Port Prosperity? The name intensifies the issue, and is not an OT name adapted for the series. Shiloh, Silas' new built capital, may stand in for Jerusalem, or it may not. Is it really part of God's plan, or not? As I say, implications about the real "Promised Land" are carefully confused.

Not ambiguous, and therefore distinguishing Kings from religion respecting trash like Deep Space Nine and BSG, much less fantasies like Touched by an Angel and Highway to Heaven, is the show's frank acknowledgement that God's ways are so damn mysterious that observant humans can naturally be peeved at the way He does business. Indeed, possibly even outraged.
In one sense, it is tempting to forgive Kings its temporizing on Zionism and homosexuality on the grounds that it was picking its battles.

It is also tempting to forgive Kings because it is so well written. It's forthright setting in a fantasy world of the nations of Gath and Gilboa may lead sf fans to think it is alternate history. It is not: There is no branch point where the imagined history touches our real history. God has no dialogue, however, nor are there angels. One visitation to David takes the form of a dream of his own father, not his Father. The main actions shown by God are a plume of smoke defying the wind and a glass falling off a table unnoticed by the protagonists. The hokey Witch of Endor disappears, but the ghost of Samuel is seen mainly by people who don't know he is dead. The exception is Silas. In the series, Silas orders the execution of Rev. Samuels, the Samuel character. This is a rather neat resolution of the power conflict between the Judge Samuel and the King Saul.

Such improvements in the plotting are a notable excellence of the series. Quite aside from such necessary clevernesses as David not being a shepherd, but a Sheppard, and Goliath being a giant tank, there is an abundant invention in cleaning up peculiarities in the OT. For example, Rev. Samuels' secret annointment of David the boy, prior to his coming to Saul's attention, is done as an accident, when Samuels inadvertently smears motor oil on the young man. David in the series is a pianist, and he is first noticed playing by Silas . But it is in passing, and Silas does not learn his name, so when David destroys the Goliath he can be formally introduced. The OT tells us that Elhanan slew Goliath, so when the series David is framed for treason, prosecutor Jack says that a Lawrence Hannon took out the tank with a remote.

Silas flawed nature is flambuoyantly portrayed by writers and actor. The minor characters, including even two simple security guards, are depicted with a specificity and reality unusual for main characters in other series. The dialogue includes a highly formal version used on state occasions by the upperclass characters, or by minor characters aspiring to formality. The awareness of class differences of this sort is surprising for US television, which generally knows only the dregs of the lumpenproletariat and the vast "middle class." And usually dare not notice an upper class at all. In an extraordinarily amusing scene, the evil brother-in-law starts to make a formal announcement, then exasperatedly cries "Now you've got me doing it!"

All these virtues elevate Kings above its competition. If it doesn't win the Emmy for best drama, it will be because the implicit politics and the mere permission for characters to question God make it too risky for approval. Like all fantasies, though, in the end it does imagine the fantastic as real, and you have to wonder, what is the point? But it's so well written! But it's got another Evil Homo, even if said evil homo is still written like a real human being might be in such a bizarre situation.

I suppose it's like The Wire. Perhaps it is just absurd to be so perfectionist about something that has so much goodness in it.


  1. Cross' existence disallows questions, not allows. I wish I could proof read!

  2. And another example of how clever they can be: When they want to reference the sacrifice of Isaac and the deer in the thicket, the writers show a deer struck by Silas' SUV!