Wednesday, May 20, 2009

My Last Post on NBC's Kings, Honest!

There was an interesting article in Entertainment Weekly a week or so back asking why science fiction doesn’t work on TV but does in movies. While not discussed, I think the problem lies in a movie’s ability to wrap up a story line in a couple hours rather than stretch a story over an entire television season if not multiple seasons. Our ADHD, 24-hour news cycle culture doesn’t have the patience for it.

This problem is found in shows like Kings or Life, two of NBC’s latest fatalities. An article at the comic book news portal, Newsarama, compares Kings with Eli Stone (another tragic loss), in that not only having to overcome the challenge of a serialized drama they also had to overcome the stigma of being “about God”. (The creators of both series are in the comic book business, but the hope that would translate into a built-in audience never saw fruit.)

While the religious undertones were a part of the problem with both of these shows, other factors such as time slot and marketing were factored more largely. I really liked Eli Stone myself, but there was no way I was going to stay up to watch it after Lost living on the West Coast. That’s one reason my television viewing is primarily online with the occasional supplement of Netflix. And that’s part of the problem- networks still haven’t figured out a way to take into account online viewership or DVD rentals to gauge popularity. I have yet to meet anyone who has seen Eli Stone that didn’t like it, so it was more a question of finding the time to take on a new show. And serialized dramas have the built-in challenge of viewers not being able to jump in mid-season or even second season without catching up on all the backstory. For example, if you’ve never watched Lost I dare you to watch last week’s season finale. There’s no way to watch that show and not feel, well, lost.

Kings was a different case however. It only got a few shows in before being cancelled and the plot wasn’t so complex that you couldn’t figure out what was going on jumping in mid-stream. In fact, some have said that was the problem- they drew out their storylines too far (in comic book terms, the story was too decompressed). But the biggest problem was the accessibility of the show. NBC gave Kings a big push to kick it off, but they never really said what the show was about. I had to read up on it online after seeing the butterfly banners all over LA to realize it was a “modern retelling of the story of King David”. That had me hooked, but I knew it would be hard to hook others. The article mentions how marketing could’ve been handled differently- targeting different demographics by emphasizing different aspects of the story. Really, Kings had it all: it was somewhat sci-fi in that it was an alternate-reality allegory, it had equal parts teen drama (think David and Michele’s relationship in an episode of Gossip Girls) and adult soap (King Silas and his brother, his infidelity and his wife could’ve come straight out of Dynasty), and despite some criticisms the religious undertones were never overstated. In fact there was one episode where the Reverend Samuels didn’t even show up until near the end. And I don’t consider butterflies swarming (do butterflies swarm?) around David to be “preachy.”

But once the cat was out of the bag that this show was in any way spiritual it was automatically given the label of religious. I never got the impression that this show was preachy, but then again I was the target demographic. And while there was spirituality involved it could hardly be called religious. There is no mention of the God of the show being the Judeo-Christian God, the Reverend Samuels could have just as easily been Leo McGarry in the West Wing, and in the last episode the protagonist expressed doubt God even existed or if he did then he doesn’t care. But there is a preconceived bias against anything spiritual. Read the comments on Newsarama and you’ll see this (“I can’t turn on the TV without being preached to!”). I was taught in elementary school that all stories have morals even if they’re as basic as “crime doesn’t pay”. Those morals have to be rooted in something, right? Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want them to do to you is universally accepted, but turn that into a quote from Jesus and suddenly you’re preachy. So while Kings and Eli Stone are cancelled, shows that celebrate hedonism and debauchery (The Bachelor, Gossip Girls, Grey’s Anatomy, et al) continue unrestrained. I’m glad I don’t waste my money on cable.

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