Three episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
In recent years, it’s been far too easy to associate Biblical adaptations with poor-quality, turgid productions that exceed far too well in earnestness and succumb tragically in the areas that actually make a TV show fun to watch: i.e., drama, characters, plot, and basic coherence. Of Kings And Prophets, the latest such adaptation, packs a one-two punch of negativity for any mainstream, non-devout audience to overcome – its staunch commitment to the source material, and somewhat courted comparisons to HBO’s Game of Thrones.
What surprised me most about the series was how it transcended the former hurdle by actually (somewhat, kind of) succeeding at the latter. The show’s rendition of a stricken Israel is far from Westeros in many aspects, but it’s close enough in a few key areas (epic scope, interesting characters, commitment to an unjustifiably cruel world) that Of Kings And Prophets never feels like it’s pushing an agenda – it’s just telling a story, and not a half-bad one at that. Christian viewers who are up for the bloodshed should enjoy the ride. Still, the real problem with ABC’s new show is a disappointing lack of focus on its promising setup beyond the premiere.
It all starts when a lion decimates the flock of a local Bethlehem family, cutting off their ability to pay taxes to King Saul (Ray Winstone). To fix the problem, shepherd David (Olly Rix) gambles with his life: if he kills the beast, the debts of his family are wiped clean. If not, well, he pays in his own blood. At the same time, Saul is attempting to unite the Twelve Tribes of Israel against the threat of the Philistines by marrying his daughter Merav (Jeanine Mason) with the son of a tribesman leader.
The problem is that local prophet Samuel (Mohammad Bakri) doesn’t always agree with Saul’s more diplomatic endeavors in wartime. Soon enough the prophet denounces Saul’s claim to the throne, David becomes embroiled in the palace treachery, and all-out war against the Philistines closes in around a city that’s already crumbling under its own aristocracy. Count in the fact that, of course, David sets his sights on princess Michal (Maisie Richardson-Sellers), and you’ve got all the soap-filled, eavesdropping, secret-fling stories this kind of primetime drama demands.
As a result of its network trappings, Of Kings And Prophets feels more in line with NBC’s short-lived Kings (not to mention Netflix’s Marco Polo) than Game of Thrones. The young, lowly hero performs a daring act to find his way into the royal palace, and quickly comes to discover that killing a lion with a slingshot was a cakewalk in comparison. Kings hoofed it from its similarities to the story of David, Goliath, and the Books of Samuel, thanks to its low-key ingenious modern setting. But Of Kings And Prophets stays mythically old-school and literal-minded (Goliath is a guy named Goliath here, not a hulking tank). Crucially, the period setting never feels like a drawback.
Credit the story, which especially in the sleek pilot, is enjoyably straightforward. The premiere jumps between David’s quest for the lion and Saul’s attempts to gain weaponry in the war with the Philistines; both plot threads offer the economy of a bedtime story but enough sex and decapitations to justify ABC’s viewer discretion warnings. It’s still ABC primetime, so the sex is more of the sweaty-torsos-and-sheets variety, but what’s on display titillates respectfully.
Rix balances the smoldering musculature of the David role with apparent ease, never letting the redundancies of such a reluctant hero character feel boring (David was one of the first such heroes, so I guess some redundancies are warranted). His chemistry with Richardson-Sellers is less worth mentioning; the two are fine together, but, like Marco Polo, the all-but-promised impending, doom-stricken secret romance doesn’t really entice. Far more of a curveball is Queen Ahinoam (Simone Kessell), who makes all of the shady corridor dealings within the palace – even the poorly realized ones – appear deceptively scandalous.
The violence is a bit more uncomplicated. The show often pans away during the grisliest scenes, especially a late-in-the-pilot beheading, but the splatter and grime surrounding most battles feel tangibly gruesome. Still, it’s more of a bookend to the show than a successfully weaponized emphasis within its stunted political maneuverings. When a character is killed mid-premiere in a predictable betrayal, the attempt to elicit dropped jaws falls short.
Co-creators Adam Cooper and Bill Collage build a good-looking, intriguing world, but when their shows’s story begins breaking away from the simplistic, solid base of the pilot, a lack of nuance hastily creates cracks in its facade. In the subsequent episodes – mainly centered around unrest against the House of Saul and the preparations for war – everything starts to crumble. Characters lock into predictable patterns, twists lack any element of surprise, plot lines already feel rehashed (Saul is angry at a traitor, Saul kills the traitor publicly), and the tricky power balance between David and Saul is largely sidelined.
The lack of focus, even in the streamlined pilot, handicaps the story. Even when Of Kings And Prophets is entertaining, with endearing characters (David’s search for the lion has some humorous moments) or wartime intrigue, the collective whole of its scope fails to resonate. Beautiful vistas are shot and captured with memorable direction, but interiors seem to be cribbed from any generic medieval drama of the last 20 years. That doesn’t help when the down-in-the-muck grit of the show begins to feel as unreliable as Winstone’s bi-polar emotional range. He’s never not fun to watch, gurgling and gruffing his way through the spotty dialogue but, over time, the tirades grate.
Plots here can feel simultaneously entrenched in intrigue and immediately perplexing, like when Saul’s son attempts to hire an assassin to kill Samuel – a threat that builds for most of episode 2 – until we discover Samuel has taken egress from the capitol without a sight and made it miles away to David’s home of Bethlehem. The show doesn’t try to justify the prophet’s future-telling knowledge with too much of a supernatural glint, but that only makes the weirdness surrounding him more frustrating than entertaining. The lack of context regarding the borders of Israel and any geographical understanding of the world expounds this issue to a comical degree, especially with the guttural, consonant-filled township names.
Of course, most of these are growing-pain issues that even the monolithic Game of Thrones had to overcome during its freshman run. Such grand scope is hard to portray, even over the course of three hours. There’s more potential to Of Kings And Prophets than in past cracks at such sword-and-sandal fare, but it’s not a very amiable prophecy when the show starts losing the reigns on even its most straightforward of story lines (David and Saul’s frenemy feud) so soon into its run. As for the crumbling, besieged House of Saul itself, the future doesn’t bode well for ABC’s new drama.
There's sex, blood, and soapy intrigue; yet while Of Kings And Prophets is a far better stab at this kind of Biblical tale than most limp entries, the series loses coherence with discouraging haste.