'Of Kings and Prophets': Game of Bibles

Ken Tucker
·Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment

It was inevitable that any new costume drama to would be influenced by Game of Thrones. Despite the fact that George R.R. Martin’s universe exists in his own imagination rather than any place on a map, American TV shows set in exotic locales want to get a piece of GoT’s immense popularity. Thus, in mounting a Bible-based epic, ABC’s Of Kings and Prophets frequently exhibits the pacing and look of HBO’s mega-hit, with the supposedly added advantage of familiar storylines.

I say “supposedly” because I’m not sure a re-telling of the Old Testament tales of Saul and David is much of a draw to a prime-time network audience, and, indeed, actually imposes some limitations on the storytelling, since it can’t stray too far from Biblical scripture (lest it be accused of inaccuracy) or delve too deeply into GoT-style sex-’n’-violence (lest it be accused of impiety).

And so, like many perhaps-doomed projects, Of Kings and Prophets splits the difference between sweeping narrative and polite constraint. Ray Winstone, so good in so many tough-guy roles (Ripley’s Game, Nil By Mouth), bristles with authority as Saul, embattled king of Israel constantly plotting and battling the Philistines. Olly Rix, working a Peter Dinklage vibe of dashing frowniness, is the shepherd David, as good at throwing rocks as he is at plucking a harp in the king’s court. Some viewers will know he’s destined to be a future king of Israel in addition to slaying Goliath — who makes a special, foreboding guest cameo in the second episode — and as if that’s not enough to do, David is required here to flirt with Saul’s daughter (Maisie Richardson-Sellers) and try to elude the come-ons from Saul’s wife (Simone Kessell). Busy, busy boy.

Before Game of Thrones, productions like this tended to be crowded, brightly-lit affairs. But Kings picks up on GoT’s low-lit, sparse atmospherics, and has Saul move though huge, empty throne rooms that will remind some of a bare-bones Westeros palace.

In keeping with traditional pop-culture Bible-story adaptations, Kings regularly features jarringly modern language — no one living 1,000 years before Christ ever uttered the sentence, “It’s called dying — it’s gonna happen to all of us!” Watching, you feel as though its story is just familiar enough to seem inevitable whenever it’s not tedious, and its earnestness short-circuits any electrical charge of wit or sexiness. Airing after another TV show based on a contemporary religion — that would be the comic-book New Testament of Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD Of Kings and Prophets has the dutiful air of a Sunday school lesson.

Of Kings and Prophets airs Tuesday nights at 10 p.m. on ABC.