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Heir Apparent

NBC’s Kings is a modern-day telling of the story of David

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Left to right: Sebastian Stan as Jack Benjamin, Allison Miller as Michelle Benjamin, Susanna Thompson as Queen Rose Benjamin, Ian McShane as King Silas Benjamin, Chris Egan as David Shepherd (NBC Photo: Andrew Eccles)

Kings, which returned to NBC two weeks ago, is a modern re-imagining of the life of David, making it the only show on television to use the Old Testament as source material. Set in the modern city-kingdom of Shiloh, and awash in biblical allusions, Kings is also a political drama relevant to our time, where war is mechanized hell and royal power struggles involve omnipotent corporations. Indeed, Robert Pinsky, in his Nextbook Press volume The Life of David observed that the King of the Israelites was tailor-made for a crime thriller or mafia movie. Kings Executive Producer Michael Green spoke to Tablet to discuss God, Hebraic legend, and the fine art of biblical adaptation.

You’ve obviously taken a lot from the Book of Samuel, right down to clever allusions to the biblical text. But while there’s plenty of talk of God in Kings, there’s really no Judaism in the show. The story of David reads like a Jewish Sopranos, yet it’s impossible to imagine the HBO show divorced of its emphasis on the Italian-Catholic experience. What motivated you to keep tribe and religion as open-ended as they are on Kings?

The idea was to tell—or rather retell—the King David story. But also to tell it cleanly, without any barfy/cute self-awareness on the part of the characters that they were living out a classic narrative. Rather to play it straight and let the story unfold as if for the first time. The distraction here was always that we also played it all in a modern setting. This led some people watching to feel the show was muddy that way, that it hadn’t decided on its sci-fi rulebook. We may have had our muddy bits, but we were definitely set on our rules: we were telling the King David story in an alternate version of our earth in which the biblical tales simply hadn’t occurred yet. There had been an Industrial Revolution—and a lot the same cultural inevitabilities—like classical music, say—certain personalities being irrepressible in any universe. So the invented world shared a lot in common with our own. But it was never completely ours because all these divine dramas hadn’t finished their work yet. So much of what we are requires those milestones, which were still in process, present, alive and happening there in Shiloh. Whether you believe that the biblical events ever actually occurred or not doesn’t matter—to get to where we are you need the idea of those events having occurred. So in the world of Kings, no, there aren’t yet Jews, per se—or Christians. There are suggestions of religious factions, and a very clear line of monotheism, but it hadn’t yet become the world as we know it today. By extension, they’d be Israelites, still fighting their own tribalism under Saul.

That’s the basic cipher code we used in the writers’ room. It was meant to be a closely-guarded trade secret—sort of like the final placement of the Battlestar Galactica drama in our own human history. But with the show having run its course there’s no more need to be cagey. There it is.

You’ve added an interesting twist on the David vs. Goliath fable by making David something of a fraud. He destroys the Goliath tank, but it’s not an act of unbridled bravery—he was in fact surrendering to it and got a lucky shot off when it stalled. It’s true that David was one of the most flawed characters of Jewish history. But doesn’t this plot twist compromise his entitlement to rule? Some might say you’re play with postmodern fire with one of the oldest stories known to man.

The mistake of that question is in the assumption that playing with fire is a bad thing. To tell any version of a story that beloved or revered or what have you, you have to be unafraid to make it your own. Otherwise all you’re doing is a school play. So yes, we made choices. In characterization of people, of moments, names, everything.

As for why that particular choice for David, I just wanted to give him a starting point that came in contrast to the assumptions anyone familiar with the text might have about him. If he waltzed on to the scene already ready to put on his leader shoes and be the solution to the country’s every problem there’s no growth, nothing except silly circumstance in his way—and we would have missed the best bits. I wanted the series to be about the creation of a leader whose actions would be felt and remembered through time. About how he became, through time and experience, the expected David. See the lessons learned, the personality formed, and the flaws manifest.

There’s been plenty of commentary about David’s relationship to Jonathan in the Bible. Jonathan at one point strips naked and gives his clothes and armor to David, who professes to love him more than he could love any woman. Your decision to make Jonathan a closet case but not necessarily a true friend and ally of David—that seems a setup for a future power struggle that isn’t in the Old Testament.

Fair assessment. Here, you’re staring down the barrel of television. The measures of creative success in a pilot episode is its ability to draw characters you want to know more about. The suggestions of future story. It’s arguable that whatever story actually told in a pilot is just a vehicle for that. You are devising and stuffing the can of worms, then setting it on the lunch table. Jack and David’s friendship—any liberties taken there—was engineered to create opportunities for story.

You’ve introduced a compelling character who isn’t in the original text—Queen Benjamin. Equal parts Lady Macbeth and Queen Esther, she seems the most astute inhabitant of Silas’s court, knowing where all the forks should go, and where all the tension lies. She also gets the best lines. Did you feel the absence of a front-and-center queen in Saul’s reign made him less a interesting monarch? Is she a composite of all the strong women that occur in David’s life, particularly Bathsheba?

Bathsheba was a card left on the board for another day that sadly will never come. Rose was a character that took on a life of her own, particularly once inhabited by Susanna Thompson, who invented something with her far beyond my own expectations. She was a true gift. I knew I wanted to people David’s world with strong women—for a lot of reasons, mostly because women figure so heavily in his later destiny, and for the role strong women play in the biographies of so many great leaders. The early David narrative is weak on that point. So along came Rose. And David’s mother—our Jessie.

Rose also gave us a lot to play with in terms of Silas’s story. Her silent hand pushing the chess pieces around, all for the propagation of her kind. She might have begun seeming like a superficial schemer, with more shallow goals, but the plan was always to reveal Rose as far more formidable than that. The episode that just aired this last Saturday, “The Sabbath Queen” reveals in flashback her role in declaring the very war that killed David’s father. Where Silas fails, there is always Rose to be the better king in his place. He needs her. And knows it.

A cynical and never-ending war with Gath, which is a stand-in for all the lands of the Philistines, is the overriding political theme in Kings. But you’ve also given us a seedy and all-powerful corporation controlling the kingdom’s media, emptying its coffers, and undercutting its sovereign. Is your biblical dramatization is purposefully rooted in the Bush era?

As a writer you always take the path that yields better story. And those particular tropes from our times put a lot of worms in the can. The audience can interpret any way they’d like. So long as they enjoy watching.

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Heir Apparent

NBC’s Kings is a modern-day telling of the story of David

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