Often, I wake up in the middle of the night missing Al Swearengen. I do. I miss his gravelly voice, his ruthlessness tinged with vulnerability, and the way he masterfully manipulated profanity, decorating his speech with curse words with the carefully precision of a housewife placing throw pillows meticulously on a sofa. Yet Al, great as he was, would have been nothing without Ian McShane, who played him for three years on the HBO drama "Deadwood." The burly actor portrayed Al's violence, rage and surprising moments of tenderness with such grace, power and conviction that, when I heard the actor was returning to television, I got all giddy.
Alas, Silas Benjamin, the character McShane plays on the bizarre new NBC drama "Kings" is no Al Swearengen. And the show, which premieres at 8 p.m. Sunday on NBC with a two-hour pilot, is no "Deadwood."
It's not that "Kings" is bad, exactly, it's just...strange. It's based on the story of King David, and tells of an alternate reality in which King Silas Benjamin (McShane) rules over his country, which I think is located somewhere in America (but I can't be sure). This nation is at war with another nation and soldiers fighting in that war include Benjamin's son Jack (Sebastian Stan) and the humble but brilliant David Shepherd (Christopher Egan). David is heroic in battle, and becomes the darling of King Benjamin, who sees him as a surrogate for his own disappointing son. I got sort of confused by all the details of the scenario, but I absorbed enough to know that "Kings" is pretty ambitious in its goals. It seems to be making comments about monarchy, the influence of corporations on war, the sacrifices men (and women) make for power, and a whole bunch of stuff.
I admire the show's vision, and some elements of the production, including its sweeping photography, and the performance of McShane, who never disappoints. But there's something so stilted about the pilot. In fact, I might have actually liked the show better had it been a little worse. There are moments when it seems to be just this side of campy, with some truly pulpy dialogue ("War asks the heart to freeze at room temperature"), some fairly corny imagery (wait until you see the last shot of the pilot) and enough latent homoerotic tension to fill eight gladiator movies (what is UP with the way Eamonn Walker's character stares at David?). If it had gone just a little bit further in that direction, it might be more fun and enjoyable.
Though NBC sent me the pilot and two more episodes, I only had time to watch the pilot. So, perhaps "Kings" improves and finds its rhythm later on. But, right now, the show has little going for it, other McShane's performance. And even that made me keep thinking that I'd rather be watching "Deadwood."
"Kings" premieres 8 p.m. Sunday on NBC.