“The minute we leave this stage we’ll be fighting with broadcast standards and practices…We’re going to go as far as we can… This story is an Old Testament [one that’s] violent [and] sex-drenched. It’s one of the world’s first soap operas.”
The quote above comes from Of Kings and Prophets creators Adam Cooper and Bill Collage, during their press conference at the Television Critics Association publicity tour back in January. The team most recently responsible for co-writing the maddeningly similar-sounding Exodus: Gods And Kings certainly aren’t lacking in direction. They know precisely what they want their gritted-up revision of the first and second Books of Samuel in the Old Testament to be and to look like. But there are two problems: The strictures of network television make it impossible for this show to be the thing it’s intent on being, and that aspiration isn’t really that worthwhile in the first place.
Specifically, that thing is “Game of Thrones, but the Bible.” To put it in scripture-ese, Game Of Thrones begat Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth adaptation, which is probably the closest ancestor of Of Kings and Prophets. The show clearly relishes its opportunity to infuse the classic story of Saul, David, and the Kingdom of Israel with some bloodletting and T&A, fixating on tattered sheep carcasses, muck-caked faces of battle-scarred warriors, and nubile concubines draped in flowy fabrics. The pilot is never more self-assured than in scenes of armed combat, with director Jeffrey Nachmanoff’s camera frantically jumping from impalement to impalement. From the overall production design that looks as if it arrived in a bespoke box labeled ‘ANCIENT PERIOD PIECE’ to the script’s awkward mix of modern and archaic dialogue (as David shows off his prowess with his sling, a companion smirks and compliments him: “Nice!”) to the general vibe of pervasive lecherousness, the influence of HBO’s lusty fantasy smash couldn’t be more obvious if a dragon came swooping out of the sky.
But the great agony of Of Kings and Prophets‘ existence is that it cannot show the breasts it so desperately wants to show, and cannot zoom as close to pulsating flesh wounds as it might like. The comment about standards and practices in the excerpt above is key; Collage and Cooper’s choice to position mature content as central to their show’s identity is simply not viable, not when ABC has censors to placate and more provocative material is readily available from the myriad of cable and online content-providers. There’s nothing shocking about blow jobs anymore, and especially not when they’re only implied by a woman dropping out of frame to her knees. (Also, secondarily, my research indicates that there were no blow jobs in the Bible.)
On the receiving end of that Biblical BJ is King Saul (Ray Winstone), Israel’s reigning monarch and broker of a tenuous peace between 12 warring tribes. But, naturally, a traitorous faction is formulating a plot to betray him and throw the nation back into disarray. On the other end of this narrative diptych is David (Olly Rix), the future King of Israel making his first brushes with his own latent heroism. In the background, female characters titter about various secret love affairs in between performing sexual services on the main characters. The characters here are little more than action figures for Collage and Cooper to march into battle and pose as they please, vessels for cool-looking slow-motion swordplay rather than thoughts or feelings.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Of Kings and Prophets is just how irreligious this Biblical adaptation manages to be. Characters make constant reference to Elohim, but his name is mostly invoked when it’s time to move the plot along, instead of in any theological or otherwise thoughtful capacity. Daniel battles a lion terrorizing his sheep both because he needs the reward money to get his family out of debt, but mostly because Elohim tells him to. Saul must unite the 12 tribes, for it is the will of Elohim. While actual observers make constant spiritual communion with an absent God, this show posits God as omnipresent, but refuses to engage with Him. For this godless Jew, it’s tough to imagine what a practicing Christian reviewer might make of all this. Is the explicit content explicit enough to qualify as sacrilegious? Does a program with such a fleeting interest in religiosity even have the power to rile devout jimmies?
The Biblical productions of yore wowed audiences with awesome displays of blockbuster grandeur, inflating the almighty to appropriately godly proportions through theatrical spectacle. Of Kings And Prophets would rather titillate than amaze, and even that modest task is rendered all but impossible by ABC’s red tape. Gritty reboots are all the rage right now, but there’s a time and place for everything, and the pages of the Old Testament are neither the time nor place for a wannabe-softcore premium cable also-ran. Steel yourselves, audiences:
Winter Elohim is coming.
Of Kings and Prophets airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET on ABC.