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There has never been a television show quite like Kings. There have been dramas about political intrigue, and shows about familial strife, and programs about young love and old warhorses and first jobs and the big city and battlefield heroics and stern kings and dying princesses and gay princes. Oh, and a show where God is very real; where the Almighty talks to people and affects the world. But there has never been a show that did them all at the same time.
Over the course of its 12 glorious episodes, which ran from March 15 to July 25, 2009, creator Michael Green’s Kings recast the Biblical tale of King David as a modern-day socio-political-familial drama. NBC spent money on Kings. They allowed Green to hire the cast he wanted — including Ian McShane, Dylan Baker, Eamonn Walker, Sebastian Stan, Susanna Thompson and Christopher Egan. They let him shoot in New York City, transforming it into the fictional metropolis of Shiloh, the gleaming capitol city of a divine monarchy. They let him put language in those actors’ mouths that had the formal pomp of Shakespeare and the cruel bounce of Tarantino. They encouraged Green to swing for the fences with an idea he hatched while writing on Heroes, after visiting Israel’s Western Wall. They let him make the show of his dreams.
Then they let it die. NBC had no idea how to sell Kings to an audience that would’ve loved it. America’s vast middle complained for decades that Hollywood was an amoral place that never made entertainment for them — and here was a show true to the Old Testament, one that never questioned the role of God in its characters lives. NBC mismarketed Kings, bounced it around the schedule before burning it off in the summer, only to be canceled and never heard from again.
Unless you were one of the faithful who sought out every episode. Who remembers the mythic arias Kings aimed for and so often achieved. I’m one of those guys, so when I decided to write about how much a show like this moved a godless heathen like me, it struck me that no one could tell the story of Kings as well as Michael Green himself. So I asked him, and he took time away from developing Neil Gaiman’s American Gods for Starz to open old wounds.
When did you first hear the story of King David?
I was a Yeshiva school kid, which is a Jewish parochial school. Rabbis instead of nuns. They don’t hit, they just tell you stories and look at you disapprovingly. I had some really great teachers who would tell Bible stories, sometimes as if it was history and sometimes as if it was moralistic and sometimes if it was just more spiritual or moving. It was actually quite appropriate, and a challenging way to teach children to think about mytho-historical fact. If you look at the Bible as bad fiction, there aren’t too many stories that hold up as a story as we understand it. It isn’t until you get to the later books that you start having real characters that you can track and follow and get a sense of. David was always very captivating for me.
I had an experience when I was starting out as a writer and I went to Israel. I was at the Wall, the Western Wall. It’s always very interesting to go there. Sometimes you feel something, sometimes you don’t. Just the ancientness of the stones is enough to sort of put you in a frame of mind — that even if these stones aren’t actually imbued with any power or magic or whatever, the fact the people have visited them for as long as they have makes them have value.
I looked up and saw birds that had nested on the very top. They just had this great loop they would fly around and around and back to their perch. Around and around and back to their perch. There are going to be birds perched up there for as long as — well, longer than we’re going to be fighting over that territory, right? I went back to my hotel that night and thought of King David looking at the same birds and being annoyed by them because they were obstructing his view or crapping in his morning coffee. I suddenly had the image of a person — not a mytho-historic figure, a human being trudging around in his slippers and robe in the morning annoyed by birds and maybe seeing a woman across the way, and suddenly it just felt inhabited. They felt like characters.
That stayed with me. I thought, boy, in 10 or 15 years I’m gonna try to pitch this to HBO. And then one morning about a year or so after that I woke up super early and I I just had this thought of what if I did it now? What if I did it now? What if I just did it now? And I did it modern dress. We’ll just shoot it in New York and put it in a building. What if we did it now?
So the first available opportunity I went and pitched it.
And when did that opportunity come?
I was on the first and second seasons of Heroes. I was on a deal with NBC at the time and I was also given the opportunity to develop. My thought was, “I’m not leaving this super fun job for some down-the-middle procedural.” So I wrote down on an index card the word “Kings” and carried it around in my knapsack for a while. When the time came for me to tell the studio and the network what I wanted to do, I pitched them that. The studio executives at the lower and mid-levels were very supportive of it. But Kevin Reilly was running NBC at that time and he passed on it. A few months later he left and there was a new network president, Ben Silverman, and he wanted big, crazy ideas. I was fortunate in that the executives — who usually people like to demonize — were actually wonderful. They said to him, “We had one thing that we quite liked, take a look.” Ben called me and said let’s do this.
It took a lot of planets aligning, it took the studio executives at Universal and the network executives at NBC wanting the same thing, and it took director Francis Lawrence coming on — who went on to do The Hunger Games movies. Every day had to sort of defend myself and defend the show against all the various network layers, broadcast layers, of people with opinions who want to diminish the product — but ultimately we were able to make the product.
We were 80 percent done filming the show and editing the show when the entire class of executives who had been our supporters were fired. Ben Silverman was on his way out. NBC was preparing itself for a sale to Comcast and Jeff Zucker was concerned only with making it look like an attractive thing to buy. So our launch was scuttled.
They had spent all this money on Kings and all they really needed to do was tell people when it would be on. They had spent a tremendous amount of money on the viral side of things six months prior, but when time came to just tell people it’s launching, the lights were off and that money was pocketed. Possibly because they did not think it would work, possibly because it was money they didn’t want to spend, possibly because it was the product of competitive infanticide of the previous regime. But for better or for worse we were largely done.
The new regime, to their credit, said “We’re not going to cut your budget [for the remaining episodes], we’re not going to stop; you’re doing great, keep going. We’re not going to give you extra money to make a big finale, but we’re not going to make you skimp.” If Kings had worked they would be able to say they supported it, if it didn’t work they weren’t going to lose any additional money on it.
Was there ever any concern with the latitude that you were taking with Biblical stories?
Not on my part. I constantly had to assure the network and studio that we were playing within the safe zone. Whenever you do an adaptation there are always people who feel an ownership of it who will watch just to complain about you. Having done superhero stuff is good training, in a weird way. Superman is American civil religion. You go in with a Smallville or a comic book or something and people will watch it just to tell you that they think he’s not tall enough. Or that his eyes aren’t blue enough. But those people are gonna watch anyway. They’ll watch five times just to tell you what you got wrong.
With Biblical stuff people really feel a powerful ownership of it. You have to have the confidence of your interpretation and you also have to know and respect their love enough to not mess with what’s essential. For example, it concerned people that we were playing with the hot topic of a gay character. I believed, and I continue to, and I have talked to enough people who are moderate Christians, in the Christian right wing, Jews, Muslims — I talked to everyone about this as much as I could until I felt like I understood the different flavors of passion you get. What I came to understand was that anyone who is looking at a 9:00 show understands that it’s a fair interpretation [of the Bible to make Jonathan] a gay character because in the Bible, Jonathan certainly does say things that people will take that way. They would tolerate that if it’s a good, well-told story. They wouldn’t tolerate you saying that King David had an affair with him. That would be too much.
But it’s one thing to say that there was a gay character in the Bible, but it’s another to assert that that homosexuality comes, like all other human qualities, from a divine source. There’s that line in the pilot where King Silas tells his son, Jack (played by Sebastian Stan), “You cannot be what God made you.” That’s a bold statement.
Ultimately, I wrote that pilot, and that series, for the people who would reward it with repeat viewing. Lines like that are halogen lights for people who think about those things and will wash over those that don’t. That was a statement I felt like making. We didn’t catch any heat for it and I didn’t think we would. I thought if we were lucky that would become a conversation. Unfortunately, I think moderate Christian America, who is a vast viewership, just wasn’t aware of the show. I got too many people telling me they would’ve watched it had they known. I didn’t get lucky enough that people got mad at that line. [Laughs] But I thought, if Twitter existed at the time it might’ve been a conversation. There wasn’t a line, dash, or comma that wasn’t well-thought out in that show. It was my first show and nothing wasn’t considered, reconsidered, polished to a high rococo shine. That show was nothing if not rococo. It was stylized within an inch.
Speaking of which, tell me about the dialogue. There are a handful of shows that feel like that to me, like Deadwood has a bit of that, Firefly has a bit of that…
A precision. “You have to speak these words like this or it doesn’t work.”
It was the first show that I created that I got to run, and I thought, “Treat every show, treat every script like it’s your last.” That voice came to me while writing the pilot. I saw that character of the king and I started falling into an atmosphere of modern dress Shakespeare. Once that took hold of me I trained for it. I believe writers should train for the job they want to have, so I did a lot of the reading I hadn’t done. Books of romantic poetry and Shakespeare; all the writing I admired I went and reread. C.S. Lewis had a style that ended up employing nicely. I absorbed enough of it until that voice came naturally to me. It was hard to say goodbye to those voices. I wanted to write dialogue that people could go back to. The same way we go back to Gilmore Girls. We remember the stories, but you go back because the dialogue is so much fun.
How long did it take your actors to get up to speed with that?
We cast for it. People who could do that and make it feel natural. Or ones like Dylan Baker, who can take a stylized line and make it feel like modern English. And then you have an Ian McShane who transports you to another world but, boy, does that world feel like where you want to live. I didn’t want it to feel like just another show. I wasn’t going for naturalism.
I was accused of being indulgent, and I admit that fault. I have no problem with self-indulgence. Who’s better at indulging you than you? If there’s anyone better at indulging you than you, marry them. And indulge them daily.
What is the one thing you wanted to do going into the show? The Game of Thrones showrunners, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, have said, “We knew, starting the show, we just wanted to get to the Red Wedding.” Was there a point in this story that felt like, “If only I could do this part?”
I wanted a second season real bad. I wanted to watch them age. I wanted to watch David [Christopher Egan] take power. I wanted to watch him become a version of Silas. I wanted to watch Silas go mad. I wanted him to struggle with his sanity. I wanted to watch Jack die beautifully. I really did. I wanted to watch them all grow to hate one another. I wanted to watch Silas be imprisoned the way he had imprisoned Abbadon [played by Brian Cox]… Some of my favorite moments were watching McShane and Brian Cox.
McShane is one of the kindest men, so generous and kind. He could bark, but early on — it was my first show, I was in my young 30s at the time — he just decided to trust me. And it wasn’t that he wouldn’t come to me with questions. Every Saturday morning he would look at the week’s work and he would give me a call. It got to where my wife would pick up the phone and he would chat with her for a few minutes and she would hand me the phone and say, “I don’t understand him with his accent, but it’s for you.”
We’d chat. He would say things like, “Do you mind if I say this, not that?” Always very respectful. One of my favorite moments ever was the only time I got a call in my office, which was just down the street in Brooklyn from the stages. He wanted to see me in his dressing room. I’m like, fuck, he must be pissed.
I go down and he’s in his robe; it’s a full on actor power move. And I’m like, “I can’t remember what challenging thing we’d asked him to do but it was something…this is gonna be the day, isn’t it? We’re gonna go head-to-head.”
So he says about this scene, “You have me bringing in a feast. Instead of it being this polished French food you have written into the script, I’d really like it to be Jewish deli.” Just all this delicious stuff. And I’m like, “You know, your name is McShane, why do you know what cholent is? You want lox and herring?” And I just said okay.
I get there on the day and [McShane and Cox] go through about half a pound of herring — in rehearsal! And they are mowing through this food. The scene is gorgeous. I’m sitting in the editing room later, cutting it, cutting around their chewing because they were really enjoying it, and I am like “Oh my God, he just wanted to eat deli! He just wanted to enjoy the scene! What a genius. Of course. He didn’t want to eat fatty French food, he wanted some corned beef.”
You know what, I knew if I ever got to a scene where I had McShane’s Silas imprisoned the way he had imprisoned his formal rival, Abbadon, and David came to visit him the way that he had visited Abbadon, then I would have done something. I was very moved at the time by the new relationship between Clinton and George Bush, Sr. Former rivals who had been through something no one else has. Of course they want to hang out. I wanted to write those scenes. Where David needed to go to Silas and open himself up.
This is hard to talk about. There is a lot of shit I had to let go of.
I’m sorry, I don’t mean to pull…
You’re not sorry! That’s your job!
I’m totally not sorry. I mean, I just want to know these things. I’m a fucking nerd for this show, I always have been.
I swear we wrote the show for people who would appreciate it that way. There was never going to be such a thing as a casual viewer of that show.
We live in a world in which Community gets a second chance at life on Yahoo!, Netflix is resurrecting shows…
Oh, I don’t know. This one was too many disparate parts. Animation comes together. You can put together Futurama again. Could this be resurrected?
If they could resurrect Arrested Development…
We never had that core. That vocal, organized core, the way Pushing Daisies has an organized core. We never had the Emmy. It takes a second season. Universal has never monetized Kings. We’re not even on Netflix. We didn’t air in England and Israel, the countries that would have been natural. People watched online; we were the number 1 show on iTunes when it got cancelled, but that didn’t matter then. [Ed. note: Kings is on Hulu and YouTube.]
Kings doesn’t make every list of favorite cancelled shows. I love those lists. It’s always 50/50 whether we’re on it. But the shows that are on it, Pushing Daisies is always on it, Firefly is always on it — we just didn’t fail loud enough. We failed kind of quietly. It didn’t get a chance to build.
But I can’t help but be grateful. We got to make the show I wanted to make. No compromise. With some ingenuity but not compromise. So to be able to look at a DVD set is remarkable. Beyond expectation.
But, hey, the way I left it, David runs off into Gath. Ideally, you meet him eight to 10 years later and he has become a gangster in Gath. Much like in the Bible story, he spends a lot of time and learns a lot of dirty tricks there. I can make it work on paper, if you can make the logistics work out. I don’t know if we can get Sebastian back… Probably. He’s great. They’re all great. Who knows?
I knew five years of that show. I knew the second season better than the first. That thing was built for ripping through story and time and crushing a decade between seasons and seeing where they land.
You know, some people noticed, some people didn’t. I was just going to make the best show I could and I got to make the show I wanted to without any real compromise — challenge but never compromise — and it remains something I am inordinately proud of. The people who worked on it were fantastically talented at every level. Wardrobe, production design, actors, writers. We shot in New York and took over the city. The crew was so excited — we had a lot of, like, procedural-show refugees who were just ignited by the excitement of doing their best work. That’s really what I was trying to tap into. I wanted to find people who were excited to do their best work. I was so lucky to be able to do that every day.
It was really one of the most fun times I ever had.
Marc Bernardin is the Deputy Editor of Playboy.com. He can now cross one big thing off his NerdQuest to-do list.