Kings Ends its Reign – What Went Wrong?

kings dvdTonight creator Michael Green’s Kings airs its series finale. Based on the biblical story of David, Kings takes place in the fictional kingdom of Gilboa, which resembles the United States but is ruled by an absolute monarchy. The cast, led by Ian McShane (“Deadwood”) as King Silas Benjamin, includes Sebastian Stan (“Gossip Girl”) as the closeted Crown Prince Jack, and Australian actor Christopher Egan (“Eragon”) as soldier David Shepherd, who defeats an enemy tank, called a Goliath, to become a national hero.

Originally airing Sunday nights as a lead-in for NBC’s Celebrity Apprentice, Kings premiered in fourth place with 6.47 million viewers and a 1.6/4 share in the desired 18-49 demographic. This figure continued to drop, prompting NBC to move the show to Saturday night but after just one Saturday airing, Kings was banished to the summer. Despite receiving generally positive reviews and being considered by some to be the most original drama of the season, Kings was officially cancelled in May at the network upfronts. When it returned to burn-off remaining episodes, it was without promotion and without many viewers. Last week Kings drew a dismal 1.57 million viewers and received a 0.4 demographic rating.

Which begs the question what went wrong?  The show was not a critical darling, like Pushing Daisies, but reviewers generally felt it had strong aspects, a great deal of potential, and was one of the most original series they had seen come along in awhile.  Then again, American audiences aren’t always known for catching on to unique or high-concept shows.

What is clear is that Kings was an ambitious show with a larger mythology. It was the sort of show you expect to see on a cable network like HBO or Showtime with the likes of Carnivale or Rome, certainly not on the fourth place network, who recently announced that Jay Leno would be filling its 10pm primetime slots instead of original programming. One look at the Emmy nominees for Best Drama says it all. The only network shows nominated are House and Lost, both shows that have been on the air long enough to pass the 100 episode mark.

kings groupIt’s a formula known only too well. A intelligent original show = cancellation. In a world where the originality of ABC’s Pushing Daisies or Eli Stone are overlooked in favour of a less engaging Grey’s Anatomy spin-off or an umpteenth edition of The Bachelor, what chance did Kings ever have? Perhaps this is why so many of the 2009-10 pilots contain the same tried and tested formulas, including the ever popular medical drama, and more police procedurals.

Kings was a different sort of show and NBC never knew what to do with it.  I’ve read an article that opposes the suggestion that Kings failed due to NBC’s poor treatment of it.  The point of the article seems to be that people weren’t very interested in Kings and it would have failed anyway.  The writer might be right, it might have failed, but I don’t agree that NBC did all they could for the show.  The sad fact is that, as creator Michael Green said, “They were very confused with how to market our show and I think, ultimately, I think it’s one of the reasons they lost the desire to make a success out of it. It’s very easy to say, ‘we have a nice cop show we executed really well for you.’ It’s harder to say, ‘we have a character-based soap that’s got some bizarre elements to it.'”

This is why, as a fan of Kings, I’m finding it hard to let go.  Unlike Pushing Daisies, a show that received an unlikely second season in order to build an audience, not to mention critical attention and network promotion but ultimately could not pull in viewers, Kings was incorrectly promoted and we can only speculate about what might have been.  What if it had been paired with a more compatible show than Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice? What if Kings had a better time slot?  What if NBC had a plan regarding how to market the show?

Green said that while the network was extremely supportive of how Kings approached the story of King David, there was discomfort with advertising it.  “I talked extensively with them about this,” he said. “It was a very bizarre divide. I found that in the development of the show, on the creative level of what the episodes and their content would be, I got nothing but support and interest in the religious or magical or somehow belief-inspired storytelling.

The Royal Family and David Shepherd

The Royal Family and David Shepherd

“When the time came for the marketing, there was a very deliberate, outspoken, loud desire articulated by them that, ‘We are not going to say King David.’ They were scared to say King David. They just felt that that would be detrimental to the show,” Green explained. “I thought it was the clearest way to express what the show was about, and I thought it might actually generate interest. But there was a fear of either backlash or marginalizing or pigeonholing. There were a lot of reasons they had. They wouldn’t go near it in the marketing, but they never had a problem with it on the creative level, which is why I was so baffled.”

Unfortunately, some also feel that Kings was a late starter, much like fellow new show Dollhouse, and that only the last few episodes of the show have realized its full potential.  Fans of Joss Whedon will recall tuning into the highly anticipated Dollhouse pilot and finding it largely mediocre.  They may also recall the numerous television critics, as well as Whedon himself, telling viewers to stay tuned as the sixth episode was a “game changer” and that Whedon had more creative freedom to tell the stories he wanted to tell from that point onwards.  The series did indeed pick up towards the end, aided by Alan Tudyk’s scene stealing performance as “Alpha”, although I’m still not sold on its brilliance.

Ian McShane and Chris Egan star in Kings.

Ian McShane and Chris Egan star in Kings.

I don’t necessarily agree that Kings was a late starter though, as I was hooked from the brilliant two-hour pilot, but as the series has built towards its finale it has gone from being great storytelling to true must-see TV.   Certainly ratings are a part of the television industry and without the ad revenue generated by ratings, a network will not profit.  Still, there are so many examples of shows that have been on the bubble of cancellation only to grow their audience after surviving the first season.  This is especially true of a show like Kings, which has a seasonal arc and is not a procedural where all ends are neatly wrapped up within an episode.

There have been a lot of great shows this season that were cancelled.  Although I found it a little too sugary sweet for my tastes at times, I do understand mourning the loss of Pushing Daisies.  With the news that NBC has cancelled it, I wonder if Canadian series The Listener will not get a second season on CTV.  Fox’s summer show Mental is likely cancelled as well, and, as I wrote in a previous entry, I will certainly miss the quirky and touching Eli Stone.  More than any of these cancellations though, I will miss Kings.  Now that it has become available to pre-order on Amazon.ca and Amazon.com, I will be purchasing the DVD set and I will be suggesting it to friends who missed the series.  With any luck it will become the kind of cult hit shows like Wonderfalls have become after their cancellations.

As for tonight, I’ll be sitting down to watch the series finale hoping for closure and enjoying the last new episode of the show.  I hope I’m not alone.

The series finale of Kings, titled “The New King part 2” airs tonight at eight on NBC.

Kings: The Complete Series will be released on DVD on September 29th.

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