This month, NBC is launching an ambitious new series, Kings, it hopes will revitalize its faltering ratings (the network currently comes in last place among ABC, CBS, and Fox overall). Heroes producer Michael Green created the hour-long drama, a modern retelling of the life of King David, after he took a trip to visit his mother in Israel.
However, he warns that while the series is based on the Bible, audiences may find that it's not the same David they're familiar with. And certain elements are already stirring up a storm on the web. I chatted with Green recently about the show, some of the controversies it presents, and what viewers can expect.
WORLD: What made you believe that updating a biblical drama for the 21st century would make a good television series?
GREEN: Before we met, Kings' other executive producer, Francis Lawrence, was interested in doing a film about King David set in the original historical period. But he grew frustrated trying to develop that into a screenplay because there was too much to tell. When he read my pilot script, he took to it because to his mind it answered the question he'd been asking all along, "How do you fully tell the story of King David?" And the answer was to write for the medium of television, which can let things breathe.
As shows like Lost and Heroes have proved, audiences have become really sophisticated and willing to play along with complicated storylines. So where network executives used to give you notes on how to make things simpler for a presumably unintelligent audience, now you're encouraged to make shows as rich as possible and assume a willing participation on the part of your audience. So the time was really right for project like this.
WORLD: Given that the Old Testament is rather unusual source material for a show, did NBC need any convincing to pick up this series, or did they see the potential in it immediately?
GREEN: NBC was very positive. When I pitched them the series I actually pulled out a King James Bible, put it on the desk, and said, "By the way, everything I just described to you is from first and second Samuel with my own extrapolations included," and they were really intrigued by it. Their biggest concern was whether we could make it relatable and interesting to a modern American audience.
WORLD: Now that you mention it, modernizing Israel circa 1000 B.C. must have been quite a creative challenge. Especially since true, functioning monarchies are so rare today.
GREEN: It was, and I wondered many times during the inception of the show if I should try to allegorize it even further by setting it in a governor's mansion or the White House. But I eventually settled on the idea that rising to the challenge of setting it in a modern monarchy was the best way to maintain the integrity of the story and create a show that is plausible, palatable, and enjoyable.
WORLD: Current politics also play a big role in the show. Was it difficult to merge that with an Old Testament story?
GREEN: What was strange was how much of Old Testament politics is still relevant today. Obviously we took some license, but if you look at the history of the Middle East compared to now, it's sadly congruent. And of course there are aspects of modern American politics that felt very relevant. Some of that came from the network's very helpful insistence that we keep the series grounded in familiar politics and political scheming.
WORLD: Can you be more specific about the "familiar politics" and political scheming that are woven into the story? I noticed, for example, there's a large corporation essentially running the war, which some may see as a reference to criticisms of the Bush administration over Halliburton.
GREEN: I'd rather not because I prefer the audience to see the political allegory for themselves. And I say the same thing when people ask me to point out the biblical Easter eggs, so to speak, in there. I'd rather people find those for themselves. If people jive with that aspect of the story, I think they'll enjoy finding them for themselves.
WORLD: Well, if I can bring up another of the Easter eggs I noticed: In the premiere episode, we see David as a negotiator-as opposed to instigating battle, he initiates peace talks. Can you talk about why you made this change?
GREEN: Well, I think what's interesting about that is that you're coming at it with an expectation based on what you believe the biblical King David was like. That in itself is a characterization that may or may not be represented by the text at hand.
I'd also add that because we're telling a longer story we can develop over many episodes, I wanted to start the character in a place he can grow from. One of the challenges I set for myself with this show was to have characters that do not revert at episode's end back to the same people they were at the beginning, so that people could grow and change over time. In inventing David Shepherd as opposed to David the son of Jesse the Benjaminite, I wanted to make sure he was a character that was at the beginning of a hopefully long journey.
WORLD: OK, but to get specific, in the pilot you have a David who in essence surrenders, pleading with the enemy for an end to the war. You didn't see that as a departure from Samuel?
GREEN: Well I think "departure" is a fair word to use for that instance. I don't know how large of a departure though, because there are writings attributed to David in the Bible that are very peace-seeking and poetical. So I would say we've included some inventions, yes, but they are inventions that represent other aspects of the historical David.
WORLD: Another of the more controversial elements of the show was the choice to make the Jack/Jonathan character gay. Can you talk a little bit about what led you to that decision and what you think it brings to the show?
GREEN: I don't think it is controversial. The goal of the show was to take the story of David and make it contemporary. So I wanted anything that exists in our world to exist in the world of Kings. And people of all sorts exist in our world, and they make for a good story.
WORLD: Fair enough, but how do you think the Christian community will respond to that interpretation of Jonathan?
GREEN: That depends on how you define Christian community. Most of them we have heard from so far have been extremely positive about it. But I know that there are some people who think that any representation of any gay character on any network or cable show is wrong. And anyone who thinks that a gay character is not welcome on television is perfectly welcome not to watch my show.
WORLD: How about those who are going to watch it? What can Christian viewers expect as Kings progresses? Are there elements you are hoping will resonate with them?
GREEN: I think they can expect to be surprised as they go. I think whatever expectations they have of what will happen based on the story they know may not be what happens here. This show is designed both for those who are spiritually minded and those who are not spiritually minded. There is an element of magical realism in the show, but we were very careful that those elements were not defined for the audience as necessarily divine. Some people will see the miraculous events that happen to David and see God's hand in his life; other people will see them and think he has uncanny luck. It's not for me to say which is true and which is not.