Just as America elects its first black-and-white president, it anoints its first television king. At least, I think it’s the first. I am referring to NBC’s new drama series Kings.

King Silas Benjamin is leader of Gilboa, with its capital in Shiloh, a computer-altered shiny New York City. Gilboa is at war with neighboring Gath—both Biblical names. In what looks like World War I-style trench warfare, a soldier in the ranks, David Shepherd, a country lad, crosses enemy lines and rescues two of his buddies taken as hostages. Returning to his lines, he destroys an enemy tank. One of the men he has rescued turns out to be the king’s son. David becomes an overnight hero; the newspapers read: “David Slays Goliath.” He is invited to court, where he meets the king’s beautiful daughter.

What’s going on here?

What caught my attention as I watched the latest episode Sunday night, was the overall appearance of the show and its clipped dialogue. It is very much an interior set, with vast, mostly empty, spaces guarded by Marines with current weapons. The colonnades suggest the Renaissance. The king, ably played by Ian McShane, wears a modern power suit, and was apparently divinely anointed. As a sign of this from God, a living crown of Monarch butterflies had settled on his head, a story he tells repeatedly to approving crowds and to his court. In style and precision, it resembles an English court, but wait a minute. For this is a retelling of the biblical story of Saul and David, told in First and Second Samuel and the Book of Kings, one imagines as the plot moves forward.

There is a sprinkling of minority characters strategically placed in this English-Hebrew court. The king’s military commander is played by American Indian Wes Studi. Otherwise, this is a WASP assemblage.

What’s going on here?

I don’t know what producer Michael Green’s sources were besides, obviously, The Old Testament. I sense the PBS series The Royals, which shows how the Queen puts on a dinner party, for example—all the cutlery is carefully laid out in advance. I sense a measure of Shakespeare and the Elizabethans in the “kingliness” of the whole thing, with its well-spoken dialogue, distant from the stutter speak, you know, of contemporary American vernacular. I detect it is also somewhat of a Roman court, with I, Claudius intrigues, and I get a whiff of Orwell’s 1984, with its authoritarian society at endless war with its enemies.

My notion of the Israelites is that they were a feisty, lively people like the Greeks. But we will get little that in this series.

America has longed for, flirted with, and imagined its own royalty since its separation from England. With Jack and Jackie in the 1960s, we had Camelot, which played better on stage than in the world. We have had pop kings like Elvis, various incarnations of the Mafia, with its family code and twisted sense of chivalry, and Star Wars, with its pseudo mythology cleverly contrived from historical sources, and, from the English, the Ring Trilogy.

Now, we have an American made king. An alpha male king, who speaks in measured sentences but is not adverse to throwing a punch. When soldier David slays “Goliath,” what reference do Gilboans have for the usage? What is their literature? When David plays classical music on the piano, is he playing contemporary music in his society?

What works for me is the brooding atmosphere, the language, and its disposition of power in a corporate-style regime. We all know that things work a certain way in society, democratic values notwithstanding. The rich are not like us, as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote. You can hope to win the lottery, but a place at court, be it the corporation or in government, with good health care, is more valuable. With power comes violence and intrigue.

Will this work? So far, ratings are weak. However, atmospherics go a long way with audiences, perhaps even in hard times, when Depression-era America is on the public mind. During the Depression, Hollywood turned out fantasy. Americans plunked down their dimes to enter movie palaces and the musical world of Busby Berkeley. Now, they can enter the court of a king.

Prior episodes of Kings can be viewed online at NBC.com.

By Hudson Owen. All Rights Reserved.