Kings, Part II
I mentioned it briefly yesterday, but the way language works in Kings deserves further attention. I know it’s not always considered a good thing when a show uses language unrealistically, but I have always been a fan of written conversation that aspires to something other than, for instance, the vocabulary and rhythm of Two-and-a-Half Men. Gilmore Girls is one often-cited example of completely implausible television language, where everyone speaks at a lickety-split pace, and every clause is peppered with obscure pop culture references. Sure, it’s not the way any normal human speaks, but it’s an instantly recognizable pace and tone that defined the show as unmistakably itself. Aaron Sorkin also leaps to mind, because no one can possibly run around the White House talking like Josh and Sam and Toby, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to.
The same is true for Kings, which seems most powerfully influenced by the linguistic power structures of a Shakespeare play. If you’re depicting a king chosen by God, he should look, dress, and behave differently than mere mortals, and he should also speak differently. Ian McShane plays Silas as conscientiously aware of his language, switching from condescending colloquialisms as he makes breakfast to a classical royal third person when he rebukes David. “Do not presume to tell us what to do,” he snaps. “We are King, and we do as seems right in mine eye.” Silas also delights in speechmaking, especially when he can endear himself to his people. On the annual day of justice, Silas quiets the cheering crowd with a particularly dramatic linguistic flourish. “Whereas,” he intones, “we made law where there was none, we mined justice from sand. Whereas we have courts, civil and criminal, presided over by a tribunal of judges, who all apply good law with study, intelligence and compassion… ten cases, here selected, I alone will adjudicate, divine wisdom my only council, and my gavel sound only after my words correct what is not right.” The inverted syntax, the emphasis on sound, repetition, and syllable pattern, and the grandiose implications, come straight out of Julius Caesar or Henry V.
Without slipping in too many spoilers, it’s worth noting that the language seems to come not just from Silas, but from the position itself. When his scheming brother-in-law attempts a coup d’etat and addresses the court, he unwittingly adopts kingly speech patterns. “Now you’ve got me doing it!” he shouts, after employing some lovely parallel structure. The downside of the decision to endow powerful characters with elevated language is that not all the actors can pull it off as gracefully as Ian McShane, who seems to be the only one comfortable shouting things like, “say otherwise again and we will snap your neck right now!”
The upside of a linguistic Shakespearean model is that it leaks into the larger structure of the show in positive, interesting ways. The first generation/second generation divide that informs inevitable power shifts, the jealous uncle, the all-knowing family servant, are all familiar tropes that call back to Hamlet and the history plays. Most obviously, the two gatekeepers who comment on the daily menu and keep track of visitors are classic lower-status mechanicals, and they seem to have walked into Kings straight from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Aside from being a smart, thoughtful, literary move for the show, the Shakespeare effect has the added benefit of creating a plausible context for the biblical settings and characters. Place names like Shiloh, Gilboa and Gath have a less jarring impact when spoken in a language slightly removed from our own. What’s more, the expression of God’s wrath feels real and frightening when described in fully formed, multi-clause sentences. If characters in Kings spoke like characters in The Secret Life of the American Teenager, the whole project would quickly become a cheesy televangelising biblical update show.
There’s plenty more to say about the brief lifespan of Kings, but I’m going to leave it alone for now. Except to say that you should watch it, because it was worth watching, and nobody did.
All thirteen episodes of Kings are available to watch on hulu.com until September 20th, when presumably the series DVD will be released.