Test Pilot #39: Kings
Debut date: March 15, 2009
Series legacy: Yet another one of NBC’s failed late-aughts drama series
Welcome back to Test Pilot guys and gals! With that extra-special Joss Whedon Theme Week behind us, it’s time to fall back into the typical, but still lovely rhythms of the feature. Today, we continue our fun exploration of one television’s most discussed subjects: One-season wonders.
Most series crash and burn before a prospective second season, but there are some that stick in our mind many years after cancellation. There is a large fascination with television series that only manage to produce a single season (often at a short order at that) before they are chopped down by “the man.” We are compelled by the possibilities and the what could have been for programs that projected all sorts of promise and upside but were never actually able to cash in on either. This theme hopes to explore some of the most celebrated one-season wonders and consider what, exactly, made audiences latch on to them so spectacularly.
Here we are, at the end of yet another Test Pilot theme. Before we get into today’s theme, I just want to thank Josh, Jamie, Anthony and Adam for taking this little journey with me. This theme has been fun, compelling and successful, and I couldn’t have done it with them.
But enough of those platitudes! We conclude today’s theme with one of the more notable recent entries into the one-season wonder category, NBC’s Kings. It’s almost three years to the day that Kings debuted on NBC and basically three years to the day that Kings failed. Because it is still “young,” Kings has not yet garnered the sort of praise and admiration that the theme’s veterans have. Yet, the series has certainly caught on with someone, as a late 2009 article pointed out that Kings was the 33rd most popular program on Hulu. As of today, Kings is the 144th most popular series on Hulu, which is still quite impressive for a series that was watched by less than an average of 4 million people three years ago. There are 120 pages of 20 series a piece on Hulu’s most popular rankings, and Kings is at the top of page eight, ahead of the likes of Angel, Haven, Suburgatory and The X-Files. Some of those series’ “popularity” is impacted by their availability (so most of The X-Files is only available through Hulu Plus), but again, Kings’ prominence on Hulu tells us that audiences eventually found – and are still finding – the Michael Green-penned series, even three years later.
What is it, then, about Kings that is so appealing to viewers? And how did NBC fail to tap into those interests when the series was on the air? Today, we try to answer those questions. Join us.
A couple of weeks ago, NBC premiered the highly-anticipated series Awake. Before it even premiered, the high-concept drama received mass critical-acclaim. However with every great review, came the same familiar disclaimer: NBC will screw this up. The mainstream broadcast network audience will find the series too complicated and it would be better off on cable.
It may seem unfair to give a new series the death-sentence before it even premiere, like many did for Awake. Despite being brilliant, many including myself didn’t think the series would last a full season, let alone a second. As unfair it may seem, we make that judgement call from NBC’s past behavior. Let’s face it, NBC has had an awful past track record when it comes to serialized dramas.
“But Adam, they had Heroes!” you may say. Heroes had the advantage of the comic-book genre thing going for them. Plus anyone who watched the show will say that after season one, Heroes fell apart. What about Journeyman? The 2007 time-travelling drama lasted one season on NBC. The 2007 series The Black Donnellys is another example of a serialized series that barely lasted a single season on NBC. Remember when Southland was on NBC? The network cancelled the gritty cop-dramas after one season as well. Thankfully it was saved by TNT, and is still airing today.
NBC has history of failing to develop its high-concept serialize dramas. But to me, there was no bigger blunder than how the network managed to screw up the 2009 series Kings.
Kings was loosely based off the biblical story of David. The show features a modern-day monarchy in midst of civil-war. Ian McShane (Deadwood) plays King Silas Benjamin, leader of the Kingdom of Gilboa who was hand-picked my God himself (so he tells his people). Christopher Egan plays David Shepherd, a soldier who becomes a hero after saving a hostage during battle. The hostage however ends up being Jack Benjamin, the Prince. David quickly becomes a national hero and the face of the war.
The two-hour pilot introduces the major players around King Silas. We quickly see that even though everyone seems to fear him, some have an eye on that thrown. As for David, during a party in his honor, he meets the King’s daughter Michelle. Of course, sexy time ensues. The pilot had a mix of several elements. First, it features conventions of a political-drama. The power-struggle between the King, and pretty much everyone else is quickly apparent. Kings also borrows from the war-drama, and there’s also a big dose of religion. And finally there’s a love-story involving David and Michelle.
The best part of the series is Ian McShane’s performance as King Silas. His presence on-screen is something not many leading men bring to broadcast television. When he does a speech for his people, or leads his daily meetings, he brilliantly commands the scene. The political elements of the series are also quite strong, and I believe it was something that could have appealed to a lot of people. In fact, in the pilot alone they dealt with issues we deal with today: War, the economy, health-care reform, homosexuality in politics, and more. The power struggle also reminds me of Game of Thrones where everyone seems to be eyeing that throne.
So why did it fail? The biggest mistake NBC did with this series was how they promoted it. They simply had no clue how to do it. The first promos featured a weird obsession with butterflies and quick shots of the main building (or castle). What kind of message does that send to the audience? NBC also promoted it as “the modern-day story of David vs. Goliath”. That is half-true, however the series is so much more than that. The religious overtones of the promos could have alienated many.
What hurt the series the most is that people had no clue what Kings was supposed to be about, from the premise to even who were the stars. In fact, NBC not once mentioned “star of Deadwood Ian McShane”. I’m willing to bet that a Deadwood mention alone would have brought many viewers.
NBC president Angela Bromstad admitted that it was too hard to promote Kings in a 30-second spot. I’ll admit that the series is not an easy one to sell. But even a monkey with a typewriter could have written a better PR plan. How about one ad with a 30 second epic Ian McShane monologue? Hell, how about 30 seconds of Ian McShane just staring at the camera with that menacing look he has? Wouldn’t you want to see the shit he’s up to?
There are so many angles NBC could have used to promote the series: political, religion, family, war, love. But they used NONE of that. They used fucking butterflies. BUTTERFLIES!
Re-watching the two-part pilot for this post made me realize that Kings may be even timelier today than it was in 2009. As bold as this statement sounds, the series reminds me of Game of Thrones. It has a lot of the same elements. But as I watched the pilot again, it was a sad reminder on how bad NBC screwed up their chance at something big. The series was shipped to Saturday nights after just four episodes, and then later was cancelled. Much like Journeyman, or The Black Donnellys, I have no doubt that Kings would have been better suited for Cable.
NBC has become a shell of itself. People are now scared of committing to a new series like Awake. We don’t trust the network with high-concept series because we are reminded of the ones that fell too soon.
Long live Kings.
And now, my thoughts on the opening episode of Kings and beyond:
When you love television like I love television, watching can become a lot like a CraigsList missed connection. There is so much television out there that no matter what I do, I am going to end up not watching something that I really wanted to watch. When that happens, all I can do is watch and long from afar until the first season ends so then maybe I can catch up during the hiatus. But when things I mean to watch get canceled quickly, that longing switches to a combination of disappointment and shame. Of course I couldn’t have helped a series like Kings survive on NBC in the spring of 2009. It was always going to fail. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t feel bad for not watching.
By all accounts, I was all-in on Kings before it premiered. Michael Green had done quality work on a number of series I enjoyed (Smallville, Heroes, Jack and Bobby) and everything I had seen from the pilot looked very intriguing. Unfortunately, I happened to be on a trip in Korea the week Kings debuted – and debuted to poor ratings. By the time I returned to the states, the narrative on Kings had been written and I had dozens of other series I already knew I loved to catch up on and that was that. But like many of the series we’ve tackled in this theme, Kings always stuck in my mind, because I knew that I would likely love it.
After watching the pilot for Test Pilot, my assumptions were proven correct. At the pilot stage, Kings is driven by strong performances, a beautiful visual style (I guess that $10 million price tag had to go somewhere, right?) and an engaging story crafted by Green that seems sort of perfect for television narrative. The pilot succeeds in establishing a new, but still recognizable world and a handful of curious characters while constructing all sorts of parallels between this fictitious world and our real one. I ended up watching the second episode (the third hour) and while I wasn’t as impressed, I am still confident in Kings’ ability to sustain its premise across the following nine hours.
The other thing I am confident in after watching three hours of Kings? There’s no way this is a broadcast network series. Listen, I am not one of those people who think broadcast audiences cannot understand or embrace a complicated and complex serialized drama. I prefer to give viewers the benefit of the doubt and assume that they are intelligent. Lost was a big hit, The West Wing was a hit, Hill Street Blues was a hit. “Mainstream” or “typical” viewers can, at times, latch on to something that is more than a cop/lawyer/doctor solving a crime/case/medical emergency.
However, I do believe that to reach the mainstream broadcast audiences, complex or serial dramas must be specifically calibrated to rope those viewers in, almost trick them into embracing the complexity. Lost wasn’t that complex for its first few seasons, it was mostly a straight-forward character drama with tinges of mystery. The West Wing was basically a procedural, only it was built around our nation’s leaders. And Hill Street Blues told great character stories, but those stories were still about cops.
Kings isn’t calibrated like those other series. It takes place in an alternate universe, where the United States doesn’t exist (or at least isn’t mentioned) and the “home” country is ruled over by a royal court. Many of the nation’s issues might be familiar and topical (war, economic strife, health care, corruption, etc.), but those issues are still dressed up in unfamiliarity. Various speeches and monologues give the audience some indication of where this nation was and where it is going, but those contextual clues still separate the world of Kings from contemporary society (again, even if the issues are quite familiar).
Moreover, while our entry point into the world is the naïve, admirable David, the series’ stand-out character is Ian McShane’s King Silas, a complex, morally-ambiguous leader with solid intentions and a religious foundation, but a whole lot of secrets as well. This kind of character dominate the cable landscape, but are harder to sell on the broadcast networks, especially when the protagonist is such a meek blank slate (purposefully, but still) and when the story doesn’t really want the audience to view King Silas as the outright villain.
Together, these elements are the strongest that Kings have to offer, but certainly crucial reasons why the series could never quite work on broadcast television. Audiences don’t mind being thrown into the deep end of an unknown world as long as the characters are tremendously relatable or the world represents enough of their reality that the unknown parts don’t stick out as much. Kings doesn’t completely fail to accomplish these necessary goals, but it fails nonetheless. This two-hour pilot features a lot of new: A new world, then an even newer version of that world and a new political structure. It is still easy to understand on a base level, and the parallels between this world and ours are prominent, but I can see why Kings didn’t fit on the schedule next to Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
There’s an elephant in the room that I haven’t gotten into, one that NBC’s promo department clearly tried to avoid with its marketing campaign for the series: Religion. I remember reading a few reviews and pieces on Kings that suggested the religious elements were fairly prominent. I’m guessing most of those interpretations are based on the series’ source material, because at least in the first three hours, Kings isn’t some religious-based narrative. It is obviously interested in questions of faith, fate and how leaders use faith as a way to manipulate public perspective, but it’s not as if Kings features constant scripture quoting. Religion scares people away and I’m sure that’s what NBC’s promo department was thinking when they crafted the terrible campaign that Adam addressed (and Michael Green did his fair share of complaining about as well), but religion is neither as prominent here as some suggested or remotely detrimental to the story or the characters. In fact, I think King Silas’ faith and use of it to craft his public persona makes Kings a better series. I appreciate Green’s decision to include religion and questions of faith, if only because too often television series stray away from it to avoid any controversy. As an artistic choice, it works. As a business choice? Maybe not.
As far as I’m concerned, Kings isn’t much of a failure. It last only one season, sure, and the ratings certainly didn’t justify the massive cost that NBCU sunk into the project. However, as I’ve said time and time again, I can’t be too disappointed with a strong single season, or even a strong single pilot.* Obviously Michael Green didn’t get to complete the epic story he started here, but he did get to write and produce a dozen episodes that are reportedly quite satisfying in their own right. That’s good enough for me, and I hope to continue watching Kings when I have more time to do so. And the series’ popularity on Hulu tells me that this single season is still good enough for a slew of other viewers as well (likely millions and millions more who didn’t watch the series on NBC at all).
*Here I’m obviously projecting the early quality of Kings onto the rest of the episodes, but I’ve been assured that this isn’t a wrong projection.
Nevertheless, Kings did struggle while it was on the air and it is our job to think about why that is. As Adam and I both described in detail, it is pretty clear that Kings should have never been on NBC and NBC didn’t help matters by crafting a terrible, muted advertising campaign that barely raised any awareness about the series. I’d say that NBC did more to push Awake in 2012 than it did with Kings three years prior and the network had less time to accomplish that task this year. I appreciate(d) that NBC tried to add some cultural cachet to the series by scheduling it on Sunday nights, the night for quality television, but that just meant that Kings had to sit in a previously aimless timeslot and deal with whatever was on AMC, Showtime and HBO at the time.
Therefore, it is easy to blame NBC, because, well, it is always easy to blame NBC – especially Ben Silverman-era NBC. Yet I do find it admirable that NBC keeps trying to break through with a big, complicated cable-like drama series. This year, it is Smash and Awake. Adam mentioned Journeyman, Southland and The Black Donnellys, and you could throw Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and even The Event in there. Parenthood and Friday Night Lights survived (barely), perhaps despite NBC’s inability to market them. Anyway, the point is that NBC has tried to do something more than just cop/lawyer/doctor series. Some of the network’s attempts have been awful and most of the time, NBC doesn’t know how to market them, but I guess I would rather have this than CBS’ consistent churning out of basic, obvious procedural fare.*
*That’s my perspective as a viewer. From a business perspective? NBC might want to borrow from CBS, like a lot.
As the theme comes to a close, an idea has been reinforced in my mind: There’s not one reason why anything fails, or only lasts a single season. Sometimes, the network really does screw the pooch. Other times, a series is ahead of its time, or other times, the series features some great ideas that don’t quite come together in the way everyone would have hoped. But most of the time? Most of the time, it’s a combination of all those things, and a dozen other things as well. The great thing about the six one-season wonders we discussed in this theme is that they at least lasted one season. That length is more than so many series get, and it is thus hard to identify any of the theme’s series as all-out failures. We might want more, and maybe we “deserved” more, but 18 episodes of Freaks and Geeks is better than four episodes, and 12 episodes of Kings is better than two. And without those cancellations, we wouldn’t get to write glowing, hindsight-focused pieces like these!
Conclusions on legacy: One of the better “failed” drama series in recent memory