‘Kings’ And the Challenges of Progressive Policy Television

By Alyssa Rosenberg

A little more than a week ago, when I was turning over some ideas about the divine in popular culture, commenter John recommended that I checked out the short-lived NBC show, Kings, that flowered and was canceled in 2009. It’s a fascinating show, in part because of how the Biblical cadences pace and deepen the emotional interactions between characters; in part because the main character is something of a void, and some of the best, most moving acting happens at the margins of the show rather than its center. But what struck me most about Kings is that it’s an illustration of how much easier it is to create pop culture with progressive policy assumptions when you remove contemporary American political alignments from the mix.

Kings is not an unambiguously progressive show. The conflict between Gilboa (where the main characters live) and Gath that is the main frame for the events of the show is ancient, intractable. It’s clearly being kept going by the interests of warmongering financier William Cross, who declares at one point “war is just the fuel of progress. Nothing gets made in peace except art,” and Gen. Linus Abner who tells King Silas “I am a warrior. You took my war,” an ancient lament in a modern uniform. But Silas makes peace not out of any theory of when conflict is just, but with attention mostly to short-term political gains, and he’s willing to sacrifice a long-term driver of the economy and the people who support it, to win those gains.

But the issues that are more on the margins, that form the background assumptions of the show, are unambiguously progressive. King Silas’s daughter, Michelle, petitions him repeatedly for health care reform, relying first on emotional arguments, then winning the debate with cost savings arguments about the impact of preventative care that would do Ezra Klein proud. When King Silas is looking for a sacrifice to a God he believes has abandoned him, he seizes on a clean energy program that includes wind power which the characters discuss as an effort to “renew the land.” These programs don’t proceed perfectly: Michelle’s health care policy overwhelms hospitals that are unprepared to deal with the increased demand for care that people suddenly have the resources to ask be satisfied. The renewal program is beset by technical difficulties. But the assumption is that these programs are in service of God’s will—and it helps, of course, that Gilboa is not a democracy, so there isn’t a partisan debate to be had over these policies, however those lines would be drawn.

The one way in which Kings feels fairly politically conventional is that it aligns strong religious belief and a distaste for homosexuality. That seems somewhat unfortunate; it would be a somewhat more progressive show if Kings managed to align faith and sexual progressivism in the way it aligns faith and environmental stewardship. But the show’s a fairly astute sketch of the cancers of the soul that result when one person tries to force another into the closet. The moment when King Silas reveals himself to be not a benevolent monarch but a spiteful, mercurial despot is also the moment that he publicly reveals himself as a homophobe, turning on his son Jack. Later, he makes an extraordinarily ugly scene when, ordering Jack to beg for his mercy, he makes his son kiss the ground he walks on, telling him “Your mouth’s been in dirtier places.” Jack’s a stunted, selfish man, but the damage that’s been done to him, both by himself and others, is in the denial of his true nature. He tries to assert himself briefly after he’s almost outed, telling his mother “Mistake of character? This is who I am.” But he can’t sustain the truth, power is the only kind of love he can accept.

Kings may have failed in the ratings, and it’s a real shame that no cable network found a way to pick it up and keep it going. But it’s a useful illustration of the drama we can make of wonkiness. Questions of health, environmental degradation, the role of religion in public life, and the family are going to persist as long as we’re human. Science fiction is important not just because it’s cool, but because it’s a tool to reset the debates around those questions by putting them in different settings.