The Old Testament gets put through the pulpy wash of ABC’s political soap formula with Of Kings and Prophets, a more muscular and provocative offering than the typical Bibliodrama. Faithful fans of NBC’s A.D.: The Bible Continues might gasp at some interesting interpretations of sacred text and all the sensationalistic thrusting of swords and spurting of blood. Oh, and there’s sex, too, although to be honest, it’s about as hot as heavy petting, and even then the show doesn’t have the sack to commit. The camera pans away or cuts just as things are about to get Skinemax. Like the now-in-theaters Risen, a modest box office hit, Of Kings and Prophets is a bit Moses-y: It points to a promised land of resonant, high quality religio-pop, but doesn’t quite reach it.
The show tells the story of David’s slingshot rise from shepherd to king. Olly Rix — a Brit whose scruffy-handsome Peter Dinklage-ish mug contributes to the Game of Thrones-lite vibe — plays the straight outta Bethlehem boy wonder as something of a twinkly eyed rascal. He’s got heroic moxy and ambition — the premiere has him bravely hunting a lion that’s gobbling up local sheep — but he’s more interested in hanging with his bro-bud Joab (David Walmsley) and scoring with the ladies than anything else. Or is he? Pressed to explain what really prompts him to answer that cat-bagging call to adventure, David shrugs. What prompts this charmed-life man-child to heed the call to adventure: holy spirit or hot hormones?
Becoming God’s new anointed means displacing God’s current anointed, King Saul (Ray Winstone), and the first three episodes get David into the king’s court and shows why and how he stays there. Winstone gives a commanding, often poignant performance as God’s soon-to-be-unchosen-one. He’s driven by a desire to be a good ruler (his ambition is to unite the fractured tribes of Israel into one cohesive society), a good father, and a good servant to a God he truly loves and wants to please. But he’s also flawed — his transparent lust for a young, treacherous concubine wounds the loyal, wise wife (Simone Kessell) whom he does love — and he’s deeply conflicted about playing the role of butchering avenger for his deity. Of Kings and Prophets is most compelling when it dotes on Saul’s crisis of faith — his resistance to obey horrifying holy orders, his heartbreak as he suffers God’s growing distance.
To be clear, “God” is something of a non-entity, much talked about but never seen or heard, at least in the three episodes available for review. The show might be playing it safe by staying agnostic, not wanting to alienate non-believers or different kinds of believers, or it might be trying to make a point. Israel is at war with the Philistines, who possess a superior military and who worship a different deity, an alleged “sea monster” named Dagon. You wonder if there’s an implied equivalency between the god of the Israelites and the god of the Philistines, that they’re both false idols that need deconstruction. (The show claims Reza Aslan as an exec producer. A scholar who examines religion phenomenon from a political, historical cultural perspective, Aslan, author of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus Christ, is having something of a TV moment: he was also a consultant on the second season of The Leftovers, appeared on an episode of The Muppets this season, and launched his Ovation series Rough Draft With Reza Aslan last month.)
Israel’s god, Elohim, is repped by the show’s most intriguing and prickly character, Samuel, played by Palestinian actor and director Mohammad Bakri. He’s a wild, wilderness holy man, though his visual and presence suggests the cliché construction of the Old Testament god — flowing beard, rumbling voice (so rumbling I often couldn’t understand him), cold and unforgiving, and prone to violence. He isn’t the safe, sage teacher of your Sunday School lessons; he’s certifiably scary. He commands Saul to slaughter an entire people, the Amalekites — every man, woman and child — in order to settle a score from long ago. When Saul spares the Amalekite king for the purpose of humiliating sport, Samuel, furious that Saul didn’t heed to the letter, finishes the wetwork with a barbarous execution.
The vibe I got from Samuel: archetypal religious extremist-terrorist. You may disagree. And if you do, you may not enjoy it, especially if you’re of the Judeo-Christian persuasion and wish to see your Bible heroes portrayed as, well, heroes. Then again, The Bible isn’t a G-rated storybook; it’s full of dubious characters doing dubious things for God, Samuel included. That said, Of Kings and Prophets is loose and selective with adaptation choices (in The Bible, Saul is a bit more extreme in his disobedience and Samuel is a bit more heartbroken by it), not to mention additive. I flipped hard through First and Second Samuel, but I couldn’t find mention of a four-way love quadrangle involving David, Queen Ahinoam, and Saul’s two daughters, Merav (Jeanine Mason) and Michal (Maisie Richardson-Sellers).
As a Christian, I don’t mind provocative treatments on scripture by those who may not believe as I do. They spur me to critical reflection and remind me that we all have different relationships to faith. I like to think I have enough intelligence and grace to roll with irreverence without being rolled over by it. But who is the audience for this curious show? Of Kings and Prophets is too worldly and iconoclastic for the faith crowd, not worldly and iconoclastic enough for everyone else. There’s some impressive sword and sandal spectacle — there’s a creative, gruesome treatment of David’s clash with Goliath — but it’s mostly dingily lit chamber drama. And the continued Hollywood practice of using English actors to play Middle Eastern roles is embarrassing. (This, one week after Peak #OscarsSoWhite.) One day, someone is going to use state of the art special effects and boldly embrace race-appropriate casting to create the most realistic Bible epic ever made, and it’s going to make tons of money. Tons. Of Kings and Prophets isn’t that epic, but like a messy vision, it anticipates it and points the way.