‘Kings’ is dead, long live ‘Southland’?

Saturday's highlight reel
Neither Macaulay Culkin’s return to the screen nor Sarita Choudhury’s sexy back was enough to save Kings from its Saturday night ratings plunge. According to the Futon critic and Raked, the modern retelling of the tale of Saul and David is now officially on hiatus ’til June. Thanks, NBC, for blueballing us again. Seriously, thanks. I’ve been meaning to finish up a dissertation, and this frees up some time.

Luckily, this week’s episode (which posted an abysmal 0.6 rating), didn’t exactly leave its dwindling audience hanging. The political uprisings of last week were seemingly all forgotten with the pageantry of “Judgment Day,” David’s martyr-happy brother has lived to annoy us another day, and everyone still loves Silas. Well, almost everyone. The king’s icy judgment over Dr. Nayar’s (Ajay Naidu) case and stone-walling of his illegitimate son’s mother (Choudhury) should come back to haunt him, in the end. A few questions go unanswered: for one, why was Macaulay Culkin banished at all? ‘Cause of a latent shoe fetish? For tea-bagging the crown (like his old man would)? My bet is it was something much more nefarious; Culkin’s brief appearance was creepy enough to make Jack look like the good son.

A thing you'd as soon not see ruined or in cinders.Still, despite the show’s flaws, Kings’ hiatus-slash-cancellation is a tough blow not only for the few of us who tuned in week after week, but for network dramas, period. If NBC is willing to put its chips down on a derivative cop procedural like Southland, but not have the sand to give Kings a decent weekday slot, then expect a whole lot more of the same-old on network television. Honestly, if America can’t appreciate a Swearengen-Langrishe reunion, then I don’t know what to tell them.

– Thumbu Sammy

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I know it’s only an oppressive monarchy (but I like it)

It’s been a good week for Kings. First, the ratings bleed has finally clotted, and the writing for Sunday night’s episode, the fourth installment so far, has taken a turn for the better. For one, all the teen drama of last week has been replaced with the political drama the pilot had promised: what seemed like a reasonable peace settlement has the kingdom erupting with street insurrections, military coups, and the emergence of a semi-free press. As one of history’s great assholes put it, we’re witnessing the birthpangs of democracy.

That said, what’s so interesting is that our empathy lies with an aging monarch with despotic tendencies over the earnest masses (and here, credit is owed to Michael Green, Ian McShane, and maybe even David Milch, for creating a character so magnetic). Even in spite of the iconic signs of illicit state action (workers being mowed down by cops in riot gear), somehow, we’re still with Silas. Is Green revealing our own complicity with state hegemony in some meta way? Are we all willing to prostrate before power if the charm is right?

When I am king, you will be first against the wall.

Those questions would carry more weight if the slogans of the insurrection at the Port of Prosperity (whose land is being given up to Gath) actually made some sense. After all, the people aren’t clamoring for a broader democracy in Gilboa, or secession from the two bordering states; they’re just saying (unless I read it wrong) that they still want in. (As an aside, there have been some real echoes of the India-Pakistan partition throughout the series, which, themselves, echo the entirety of the post-WWII birth-of-nations. Green could raise the political stakes by hinting at the displacements caused by the wars that opened up the series, four weeks ago).

But back to the characters. David won some points by not being the most annoying character this week. That distinction goes to his brother, Ethan, who not only killed his own comrade-in-arms, but who had the gall to turn his back on David even after he saved his ass from execution. Trailing right behind Ethan is his mom, who, the folks at MoveItMoveIt lucidly point out, “doesn’t do much besides stand around with [her] hands on [her] hips acting indignant.”

Those quibbles withstanding, things are on the up for Kings with more political murkiness on the horizon. Silas’ right hand man has now defected to Cross. Jack has returned to the dynastic fold. And Silas is finding his inner Swearengen.

Well played, Green. Here’s hoping (with the rest of you) the show isn’t cancelled before it has a chance to resurrect Kevin McCallister’s career. Watch it here if you haven’t already.

– Thumbu Sammy

David Simon meets the Big Easy

David Simon Meets The Big EasyIt’s been a year since The Wire ended its brilliant, five-season exploration of the post-industrial American city, a little less since Generation Kill took a crack at Iraq, and now, sources report that David Simon got the go ahead to shoot his pilot for Treme, a proposed HBO series that will look at New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina, through the lives of musicians affected. When news broke earlier last year, I was thinking we’d get a North American version of the Buena Vista Social Club, but, Simon (of course) promises something much more complex: “It’s basically a post-Katrina history of the city. It will be rooted in events that everybody knows. What it’s not going to be is a happy stroll through David Simon’s record collection. It should not be a tourism slide show. If we do it right, it [will be] about why New Orleans matters,” Simon tells EW. After five years of showing us how Baltimore mattered, do we really expect anything less?

Details are sketchy but promising, and it looks like a bunch of the old Wire vets will be back for a second round. New Orleans-native Wendell “Bunk” Pierce will play Antoine Batiste, a struggling trombonist in the city (echoes of Buddy Bolden?); Clarke Peters (Freamon) will play the leader of a Mardis Gras Indian tribe “trying to get members of his tribe back home”; and a surprising cast member, Steve Zahn (of Reality Bites fame) looks like he’ll be the new Prez, playing a “dancer, DJ and band member with anger management issues.” Here’s hoping that Nola’s finest, Jay Electronica, might pull a Method Man, and land a role.

Between this and Milch’s Last of the Ninth, which started casting last year, HBO looks like it may ring in the new decade with a lineup that could rival its mid-auts heyday.

– J.C. Freñán

“It Was Written”: Kings, Slumdogs, and Prophecies

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.I gotta thank God / 'cause he gave me this chance to rock hard.

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.

Welcome to Shiloh, cocksucker.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.

Who wants to be a millinaire!

  • 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.

– Thumbu Sammy

NYPD ’72

I’ve been a Milch fan before I knew who Milch was. Back in middle school, when rumors spread that NYPD Blue would show a little booty on network television, I’d tune in and get roped in by the plot lines. A decade later, Deadwood came around, reinvented the language of the Western, constructed a microcosm of the brutal evolution of American society, and knocked my ass flat OUT. That said, when the memo arrived (nine months late) that Milch was working on another cop drama, it made me pause. Not ’cause I doubt Milch has another masterpiece in him, but because it’s hard to see what Milch could offer the police teledrama genre now, in a world after The Wire.

Wishing he had Jessie's girl, circa '94
High Tide: Wishing he had Jessie's girl, circa '94
For all the haterade that was thrown at Milch after “abandoning” Deadwood for John from Cincinnati, I was at least slightly interested to see how he could revive the blonde-surfer-beach drama, which had been completely gutted with the mid-90s straight-to-syndication likes of High Tide, Baywatch, and all its abysmal spin-offs. Well, as we all know, he didn’t. Maybe he wanted to inject American television with a dose of magical realism? Maybe he needed some sun, after three years shooting in Nebraska? All I know is, in hindsight, that whole idea seemed like it was concocted during a bout of LSD-reflux. John Monad from Cincinnatti – the levitating, reincarnation of that older J.C.? C’mon, man.

But let’s do like J.C. and forgive, if we can’t altogether forget.

What could Last of the Ninth possibly offer that David Simon hasn’t already? Here’s a summary according to The Hollywood Reporter: a period piece, set in NYPD 1972, “about an older detective’s mentoring of a young detective returned from Vietnam in a department fiscally crippled, under attack by revolutionaries, and which has been brought by allegations of systematic corruption into public disrepute.” Wait, that actually sounds good. A cop drama before the War on Drugs dominated cop dramas. As long as this dude doesn’t turn up…

Never again.
Never again.

– Thumbu Sammy