Beneath the Underdog

No one cares for me.

Time to fess up: for me, the real tragedy of the premature dismissal of Kings from the NBC lineup isn’t the fact that a decent show didn’t get an honest run, or that a great cast was now out of work (though that was certainly a part of it); it was the sudden lack of material to post and the sudden absence of a decent distraction. Unless you have the encyclopedic breadth of a J.C. Freñán, who seems to have an uncanny ability to watch everything at all times, it’s hard to keep up with weekly installments of teledramas. This ain’t made any easier by shows like Lost (which I caught a few recent episodes of with our good friends at Interweb Detritus), whose plotlines are so mangled, are such labyrinthine mazes through bullshit, that they’ve become absolutely impossible to enter midway. So, naturally, I spent most of my time in front of the tube watching a drama of other sorts unfold – the much more accessible ’09 NBA Playoffs – only to witness yet another devastating and premature dismissal of a tale of Biblical dimensions (if not quite proportions): the untimely death of the David-turned-Goliath-turned-David-again Detroit Pistons.

Now I know TubaTV isn’t the most appropriate spot to vent about sports per se (even if I, the destitute student that I am, have only ever experienced sports through television), and I don’t want to go on about how much the decimation of my beloved, hometown team hurt (how, for instance, my heart dropped into my intestines after game 1; or how close I was to taking the plunge into the Pacific after game 3). There’ll be none of that. No, I want to talk more about the narrative of the underdog, the one narrative hook that pulls us all in, whether it be in sports or film (hello Slumdog!) or TV shows. Our national psyche is indebted to that narrative (Horatio Alger’s rags to riches tale is paradigmatic; and Obama’s story the latest example), but that shit goes even beyond the country’s borders. It’s a universal trait of modern subjectivity to believe we are always the underdog, even when we’re not. And if we ever do come to grips that we are no longer the underdog, that somehow we’re no longer an average Joe when we’re catapulted to the next tax bracket, something feels amiss. For Sheed & Company, they longed for the days when no one believed they could win, until, they no longer actually could.

Malcolm Gladwell (of The Tipping Point fame) in this week’s New Yorker gives some perspective on how underdogs pull off their great upsets. Gladwell narrates the story of a Palo Alto youth girls basketball team, coached by IT entrepreneur and hoops-newbie Vivek Ranadive, who, against all odds, manage to become the league’s best team. Gladwell returns to the David and Goliath tale for example:

‘And it happened as the Philistine arose and was drawing near David that David hastened and ran out from the lines toward the Philistine,’ the Bible says. ‘And he reached his hand into the pouch and took from there a stone and slung it and struck the Philistine in his forehead.’ The second sentence—the slingshot part—is what made David famous. But the first sentence matters just as much. David broke the rhythm of the encounter. He speeded it up. ‘The sudden astonishment when David sprints forward must have frozen Goliath, making him a better target,’ the poet and critic Robert Pinsky writes in ‘The Life of David.’ Pinsky calls David a ‘point guard ready to flick the basketball here or there.’ David pressed. That’s what Davids do when they want to beat Goliaths.

Gladwell’s essay is about the way in which the Davids of the world win, by outhustling and outsmarting their opponents, by ignomiously “choos[ing] not to play by Goliath’s rules.” But Gladwell has less to say about the fleeting nature of Davids, a constitutive part, I’d argue, of the narrative itself.

Getting back to hoops, the Detroit Pistons of the aughts are the perfect example of the David and Goliath tale because, over the long decade, they inhabited both ends of that tale: they were, in ’04, the unlikely underdogs knocking off the imploding, hubristic Lakers; and they were, every year after that, the arrogant force of the East, who lost time and again to an upstart (Miami, Cleveland, and the freshly minted Celtics). And so it went with Ranadive’s basketball team, the team of wimpy, white girls (and Desis) who perfected the full court press and, against all odds, started to mow down their opponents; soon after becoming the fiercest defenders in girls basketball, they turned into the obnoxious victors, enough that opposing coaches launched chairs across the court in frustration.

Some weeks back, I praised Kings for its inspired reinterpretation of the David and Goliath tale (the press and public mistake David’s surrender as an act of defiance), but was annoyed by his protagonist’s subsequent, string-enhanced, heroism in every fucking episode thereafter. What would have happened to the David of Kings as the show progressed? He drew the ire of TubaTV, but would he have started to piss off the public of Gilboa with his repeated acts of underdog bumpkin heroics? Would he have turned into a KG, barking at the latest upstarts? Now, thanks to NBC, we’ll probably never know. Eh.

— Thumbu Sammy

You know what it takes to sell real estate? It takes brass balls to sell real estate.

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‘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

Kings: Already Over?

Let this man finish a series.
Damn. I guess I spoke too soon. James Hibberd reports:

NBC is replacing freshman drama Kings on Sunday nights, yanking the struggling allegorical series after four episodes. Kings will be swapped out for another hour of Dateline, which will now run for two hours starting at 7 p.m. […] The remaining eight episodes of Kings will air on Saturday nights at 8 p.m. starting April 18.

‘Cause what television really needs is more Dateline. Bloggers [here, here and here] smell “cancellation” around the corner, Saturdays being the hospice of dying shows. With this and Leno taking over the ten-spot, I’m not sure what the future holds for teledramas on NBC.

– Thumbu Sammy

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

How the Old Testament Spoiled Kings

Amour fou
Amour fou
Well, Kings has survived another week, and there haven’t been a great deal of changes from where we last left off: King Silas is still suspicious of David; David is still infatuated with the King’s daughter; and Jack is still miffed at David’s meteoric rise to fame. Thankfully, all the prophetic signs and wonders that got my goat last week have abated for the moment, or at least, have become more ambiguous (Ian McShane snapping a deer’s neck was much more ominous than David dreaming/seeing the phrase ‘don’t go’ over and over). The teen melodrama subplots, unfortunately, don’t seem to be going away soon, and David is still squeaky clean as ever (are we really to believe that making out with some random chick is to be read as a moral trangression?). But hey, when you cast two Desis in a scene together on network TV, all is easily forgiven.

Here’s my guess as to where it’s all leading, thanks to an intense half hour of wikipediaided catechism. The show, as everyone has already pointed out, is built on the Old Testament narratives of David, Jonathan (Jack), and Saul (Silas) and the trifecta’s struggle for power in the old Israeli kingdom. And so, if creator Michael Green stays true to his source material, then the likely outcome is this: like Saul’s son Jonathan eventually siding with David instead of his father, Jack will side with David as the legitimate heir of Gilboa. Though in the Bible, the J & D relationship is a deep, homosocial (scholars say -erotic) love, I’m guessing in the show things will stay tame; Jack will first envy (as we’re seeing now) David, then fall head over heels for him, with David responding in more tepid, bro-like ways. Maybe with a dap, and a “thanks.” Crushed, Jack will die. Silas will keep trying to kill David, to no avail. Facing an insurmountable rebellion led by David, old Silas will commit suicide. And if the show survives long enough, David will be crowned King.

That’s more or less how it all goes down in the holy book. Will it play out that way in Kings? Maybe. Still, it doesn’t really matter. Assuming that Green is interested in subverting the classic Biblical narratives in interesting ways, and in exploring what the narrative could mean in a modern day dystopia – well, that’s enough to compel me. Now, to rope in the twenty million others watching Amazing Race.

– Thumbu Sammy

“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