I’ll just go ahead and say that I thought Slumdog Millionaire was weak. And without getting into every crack in the film’s lacquered surface (the implausible plot, the dopey politics, the corny resolution), I’ll focus on the central conceit of the film, which, I think, is the ultimate copout of any story: we learn, in the opening minute of the film, that Jamal, our protagonist, will reach the end of the yellow brick road because “it was written.” Prophetic tales aren’t just lazy, they’re manipulative. They follow the same grammatical skullduggery that old Dick Nixon employed when he uttered the famous words, “mistakes were made.” Prophecies evacuate agency. Just invert the punchline of Slumdog into active voice, and we realize that “it” wasn’t “written,” but someone (say, the writers?) actually wrote it; or if you want to stay within the borders of narrative, the characters did it.
Kings, NBC’s latest period drama, is a tale of prophecy; creator Michael Green (of Everwood and Heroes fame) projects the Biblical tale of David onto a modern city-state called Shiloh that looks a whole lot like NYC. (For those of us who didn’t enjoy the privilege of Sunday morning cathecism, you’ll at least have heard of the David who slung stones at the towering Goliath, and knocked his ass flat out. Same dude). In the Kings pilot, our blond-haired, blue-eyed David rises up to a Goliath (the codename of the neighboring nation’s tanks), chucks a grenade instead of a stone, and blows it to smithereens. In an inspired bit of writing, Green colors David’s heroics ambiguous: despite the press clamoring otherwise, David admits that his dramatic slaying of Goliath was, in fact, a sheepish attempt at surrender. I was with Kings at that point – upending a familiar story is always a good move – but by the end of the pilot, David actually does find courage to diplomatically “slay” Goliath, raising the white flag in front of a line of tanks and crossing the L-O-C, to redeem his slain brother’s death. It’s not that bad a moment, really, but the Platoon-like histrionics and the dolorous, quasi-Arab singing took it into schmaltzy territory. It’s a land that Kings returns to constantly.
When you have prophecies, flocks of animals and swarms of insects often intervene as symbols and plot devices (the pigeon that saves David’s life in the second episode embodies both). There are massive deus-ex-machinas (a quiz show, let’s say) that enable a comedic resolution (the heterocouple getting hitched) with a payoff (protagonist becomes crorepati). But they can work, too; think of the prophetic convention in Shakespearean tragedies, for instance; or to keep the Filmi bus running, think of Maqbool, Vishal Bharadwaj’s Hindi adaptation of ‘Macbeth,’ which opens with two crooked Mumbai cops prophesying Maqbool’s rise and fall in the criminal syndicate. It worked, ‘cause the characters were memorable and complex and fucked up in recognizably human ways.
So far, the characters in Kings are a mixed bag: the twenty-somethings are entirely two-dimensional, and the lines of good and evil have neatly been demarcated between the hetero-pairing of David and Princess Michelle and the dastardly, hedonistic, gay Prince Jack*. The elders, however, aren’t so easy to peg – King Silas (played by Ian McShane) vacillates between his own desire for power and his acceptance of (and even desire for) the responsibilities of power, between violence and peace, between war and diplomacy, between hyperliterate blowhard and hardass (he’s a lot like our old pal, Al Swearengen, that way). The queen, too, is complex: a daughter of wealth and leader of her own army of domestic life, who clearly knows a thing or two about the marriage between court and capital. And I am digging the entire quasi-American kingdom, set in a modern, neoliberal world – Kings certainly has an opportunity to explore power in some novel, interesting, if archetypal ways.
What worries me is that the whole prophecy schtick will become the tenuous thread through which anything ever happens in Shiloh – last week’s episode depended so much on “signs and wonders” to propel David to save the day. Then again, we (like the old guard in Kings) only know that the Aryan prince here is being chosen for something, and aren’t exactly sure what that something is (I’ll take a stab, and guess, he becomes King). But maybe, like all the grizzled veterans of Shiloh, David will emerge in three-dimensions, become more Miyan “Macbeth” Maqbool and less Jamal “Slumdog” Malik.
Green says, just give it time. And I guess that’s fair.
- Brent Hartinger of AfterElton points out that Kings de-gays the David and Jonathan story, erasing the romantic bond between the two characters in the Biblical story.