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Killer missteps

Olly Rix as David and Ray Winstone as Saul (Trevor Adeline/ABC via Getty Images)

Television

Killer missteps

The networks botch another Bible story

Few will recall this, but ABC’s new series, Of Kings and Prophets, isn’t the first Old Testament drama about Saul and David a broadcast network has tried to turn into a prime-time hit.

In 2009, when NBC debuted Kings, the show seemed to have everything going for it—a buzzworthy cast, a $4 million per episode budget, and early praise from critics. Yet Kings tanked so badly, after only four episodes, NBC moved it from a prime Sunday night slot to a Saturday no-man’s-land before canceling it.

Given the poor ratings Of Kings and Prophets drew in its first episode on March 8, it looks likely to suffer a similar fate. Which would suggest that high-level executives for the small screen are no better than high-level executives for the big screen at reproducing the success that much cheaper, lower-profile Bible-based properties routinely achieve.

WORLD has outlined many times before some of the reasons these pedigreed biblical films and TV shows flop, not least of which is they employ publicity campaigns that telegraph to tens of millions of potential viewers who actually believe the Bible, “This is not for you.”

Much like Darren Aronofsky announcing that Noah would be a climate-change cautionary tale or Christian Bale saying that his portrayal of Moses was inspired by schizophrenia, ABC’s marketing for Of Kings and Prophets has relied heavily on the novelty of a Scripture-inspired saga with lots of sex and violence. So much sex and violence, in fact, they’ve said they won’t be able to air it all during the show’s regular broadcast. “We have more leeway with online content,” creator Adam Cooper told Variety in January. “In the broadcast version, we kind of have to cut around it and do it in pieces, but in the online version, I think we can show it as we originally intended.”

Many Christians wouldn’t object to a TV series that, within reason, depicts the sinful aspects of an Old Testament story. But evidently intrigues like a boy hacking off a warrior’s head, a man using his daughter as bait for his enemy, or a king sleeping with his soldier’s wife weren’t enough for ABC producers to work with. Instead, in an obvious attempt to ape Game of Thrones, they’ve invented situations merely as an excuse to go graphic.

What is it about the psalm-composing shepherd after God’s own heart that gave the show’s writers the idea that the best way to introduce him would be to show him lounging in a brothel? Why take the fascinating, complex character of David and reduce him to a clichéd, cocky rapscallion who, rather than crediting the Lord for rescuing him from the paw of the lion, needs Saul’s daughter, Michal, to remind him to praise God for his triumphs?

This brings up the show’s most fatal misstep—the same one that sunk NBC seven years ago and is actually something that Game of Thrones, for all its faults, gets right. Part of what makes George R.R. Martin’s history-inspired fantasy so engaging is that while the characters’ motives are familiar, their worldview is thoroughly medieval. Our sanctimonious 21st-century perceptions are not only often severely stunted, they’re also boring to watch.

Consider 1 Samuel 15 in which Saul disregards God’s order to wipe out the Amalekites, including their livestock and other possessions, and lets his greed and pride prompt him to spare King Agag and collect choice spoils. With just a few brief strokes, we see the key fault in Saul that will eventually lead to the crumbling of his sanity and his rule.

Of Kings and Prophets takes this dramatic event and superimposes a tiresome modern motivation. Here Saul is a traumatized soldier, morally conflicted at the wartime violence he’s required to commit. Not only does this version charge Elohim with evil, it rings both less true and more formulaic. 

Note to ABC writers: When dealing with an author of infinite skill, best just to stick with the source material.

Editor’s note: ABC canceled the series after the magazine in which this review was published went to press.