Of Kings and Prophets
TV Series Review
You can almost hear the ABC pitch meeting for Of Kings and Prophets: "OK, guys, Game of Thrones is going bonkers over on HBO. And The Bible miniseries was a huge hit on the History Channel. Hey! Why don't we mash 'em up together somehow? That's sure to be a hit."
Well, it's not quite turning out to be a hit, but the series sure does lots of mashing.
A Slingshot Approach
The story's players are familiar to us, of course. King Saul is the aging warlord trying desperately to keep his fractious kingdom together and fend off those pesky Philistines. Israel's one-time leader Samuel dourly expresses God's—and his own—displeasure at how Saul's running the show. And David, the young, handsome upstart, has a new gig as Saul's personal harpist. (Spoiler warning! Saul and David will have some serious differences as the show goes along.)
There's some effort to adhere, at least loosely, to the biblical narrative. The pilot episode, for instance, goes into bloody detail of how Saul led his soldiers to slaughter the Amalekites at the behest of Samuel, how Saul spared the Amalekite King Agog against Samuel's wishes, how Samuel killed Agog himself and then—literally—tore himself away from Saul.
"It is a sign," Samuel solemnly says, a piece of his garment held in Saul's hand. "Elohim will tear the kingdom away from you."
Clearly, the biblical saga ABC chose to chase has plenty of inherent narrative heft and intrigue to it—and the potential for pools of blood. "It's one of the world's first soap operas," creator Chris Brancato said at the Television Critics Association winter press tour.
But the show adds quite a few of its own flourishes to Scripture's broad brushstrokes—and all of them seem an effort to goose the Game of Thrones quotient. Saul uses his daughters as sexual pawns to cement his political power. Rival kings lurk on his borders, and a spy slinks around his bedchamber. Early on, it seems that God is merely one of the players in this tawdry drama—a pocket plaything of the dour, jealous Samuel.
It's telling, perhaps, that the least religious character here is David himself, a young man who rarely invokes the Almighty as others decide how to best rope the Deity into their schemes. David's still the hero, it would seem, but a hero more in tune with the 21st century's post-Christian America than ancient Israel.
"He was vain," producers Reze Aslan, Bill Collage and Adam Cooper said of David on religiondispatches.org. "He was vengeful. He was lustful. He killed his friends and he betrayed his wives (and he had a lot of wives). This is to say, the Biblical David was human, just like we all are. And as such, he was imperfect. Just as we all are. This was the character we were interested in exploring: a man who struggled with the same temptations, ethical ambiguities, and questions of faith we all struggle with. A man who was forced to weigh the needs of a nascent nation with the requirements of the Old Testament’s wrathful God. In exploring this character honestly and in all his facets, we wanted to shine a light on the struggle that many of our contemporary religious audience experiences."
Let's Harp on a Few Points
On its face, that statement has its merits. David was, of course, imperfect: We learn as much in our first days of Sunday school. And I do think many of us struggle, in these prophet-scarce times, with what the will of God might be in the midst of a flawed, ambiguous-feeling world.
But it seems disingenuous to say this show will help people wrestle with their faith when its very content makes the series a nonstarter for most of the folks for whom faith matters most.
"There is no discussion about trying to add more sex or violence for the simple sake of doing so," said Brancato. "We’re trying to tell the story that is in 1 and 2 Samuel, which has plenty of sex and violence on its own.”
Except, of course, that Of Kings and Prophets does add quantities of grotesquely violent and outrageously salacious content—particularly by broadcast television standards. The camera not only shows, say, the slaughter of the Amalekites, it positively revels in it. And the biblical narrative's sexual quotient has been amped way up, from the sexualizing of Saul's daughter to David's solicitation of prostitutes and bedding the king's wife.
"We're going to go as far as we can," Brancato more honestly told critics, joking, "The minute we leave this stage we'll be fighting with broadcast standards and practices." And as tawdry and titillating as the ABC airings are, an even more extreme editor's cut—complete with partial nudity—is streaming online.
Crude or Profane Language
Drug and Alcohol Content
Other Negative Elements
Other Belief Systems
+Of Kings and Prophets: Mar. 8, 2016 "Offerings of Blood"
Readability Age Range
Olly Rix as David; Ray Winstone as King Saul; Mohammad Bakri as Samuel; Haaz Sleiman as Jonathan; Maisie Richardson-Sellers as Michal; Simone Kessell as Anohim; Jeanine Mason as Merav; Rowena King as Zaphra; Louis Talpe as Eliab; Alex McGregor as Sarah; Lyne Renee as The Witch of Endor