'Kings' of Manhattan

TV writer Michael Green on Saul, David, comics & 'Sex and the City.'

By NATHAN BURSTEIN
April 30, 2009 11:20
'Kings' of Manhattan

Michael Green 88 248. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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For TV writer Michael Green, the path to the Bible ran through Sex and the City. As he's climbed the TV totem pole in the decade since scoring his first screenwriting credit on the HBO series, Green has acquired several additional titles: consulting producer, supervising producer and finally executive producer and creator. The latter two roles came this spring with the launch of Kings, a well-reviewed NBC series based on the biblical rivalry between King Saul and the young David. Praised by critics for its imaginative writing and polished big-budget look, the show has marked both a professional step forward and something of a return for Green, the son of an Israeli mother and American father who grew up in a suburb of New York City. Shot largely in Manhattan - the program's offices overlook Central Park and the palace is located on the Upper West Side - Kings brought Green back to his hometown and to the city of his first writing job, even as it "rounds out the Jewish day-school education" he received as a child. "It was a very, very big creative decision" to bring the show to New York, Green said recently in a telephone interview. "We just felt very strongly that to sell the idea of a modern monarchy, you needed a real city that was a real capital - that was just royal, really, and Los Angeles doesn't have that appeal." THAT SAID, the city that appears in Kings isn't quite New York - the show's characters know it instead as Shiloh, the newly rebuilt capital of Gilboa, a war-torn country with a deeply divided populace and an unpredictable, often combative monarch (Ian McShane, a Golden Globe winner for his work on Deadwood). As the show's biblical roots suggest, the city is modern in look but not in nomenclature, with its name shared by the ancient city where the Israelites kept the Ark of the Covenant, which was later captured in battle by the Philistines. That ancient enemy is never mentioned in Kings, where the protagonists instead face persistent questions over a war with a different hostile neighbor, the made-for-TV country of Gath. The Bible's greatest Philistine figure does live on in Kings, however, with the warrior Goliath reincarnated here as a tank that David destroys with an explosive rather than a slingshot. With war constantly in the background and residents of one outlying area demanding that their "God-given land" not be traded to Gath, viewers might see certain parallels with other regions of the world - which is their business, Green said. "That's for the viewer," he remarked, responding to a question about whether Kings might be interpreted as an allegory. "Authorial intent is garbage - move on." Whatever real-world parallels viewers might project onto the show, the series also offers plenty of traditional prime-time intrigue, with side plots involving adultery, a possible power grab and a secretly gay member of the royal family. David, hailed publicly as a hero by King Silas - known in the Bible as Saul - quickly comes to be viewed as a threat by royal advisers, but not by the king's daughter, a pouty young princess not entirely at ease with her privilege. Revealed with expert pacing and suspense, the plot points partly reflect the writing skills that Green picked up on Sex and the City, where he learned to "break a story" while serving as a staff writer on the show's first season. "I'd done a film script that was never bought or produced, [but was written] in the voice of the show, accidentally, and they were looking to bring on one more junior writer," he said. "This was before anyone thought that the show - or even HBO, for that matter - was a prestigious place to be, to the point where most of the people in my life told me, 'Why the hell are you working for a sex show on cable? You should go work for your father.'" FOLLOWING UP his work on Sex, Green continued behind the scenes on two network series that he said he'd "prefer to forget," then discovered a use for another aspect of his childhood that would serve him well professionally - his interest in comic books. "Like most dorky 12-year-olds, I found comic books and really enjoyed them, and my parents thought, 'Well, at least he's reading,' " he said. "Early in television, I would keep quiet that I liked comic books, and then I went to an interview for Smallville" - the WB series about Superman as a teenager - "and suddenly it became an asset." After "outing" himself as a comic book fan on Smallville, Green wrote and produced two additional teen-oriented series before returning to the superhero genre, writing and executive-producing the first season of Heroes, a hit for NBC about an indestructible cheerleader and other unlikely saviors. Around the time production stopped on Heroes because of the 2006 Hollywood writers' strike, Green submitted and got a green light on the pilot for Kings, an idea that had already been percolating for several years. While TV executives at one time might have shied away from an epic, religiously inspired series, the uncertainty of the current moment - when the major networks continue to hemorrhage viewers to the Internet and their cable competitors - initially worked to the show's advantage. "I pitched at a time when people were taking a lot more shots on [projects] with larger ideas, and some places still are," Green said. As for the show's plot material, "They thought it was weird but were very receptive." Critics generally were too, with The New Yorker calling the opening episodes "engrossing" and "compelling," and The New York Daily News describing scenes that are "brilliant and subtly turned." (Not everyone agreed, however; Time, being cruel, termed the show "fascinating pretentious hoo-ha.") VIEWERS, BY contrast, have mostly been oblivious, with Kings' debut earning disappointing ratings and moving nowhere fast. After airing just a few episodes, NBC announced that it would move the show to Saturday night, which "usually means the network is done with something and that they're just letting the episodes play out," Green said. Last week, the network announced it would take Kings off its broadcast schedule entirely until June, when it will return to the air to complete its 13-episode run. Though he describes Kings' fate with disappointment, he's also circumspect about the current climate - "I've worked in television long enough to know that success is the rarity," he said - and he's already looking ahead to his next project, back in the world of comic books. Together with Greg Berlanti, a colleague on his two WB shows, Green has written the script for his first movie, The Green Lantern. Based on the DC Comics series, the film will be shot by Martin Campbell, director of two of the more recent James Bond films. While he wishes Kings had enjoyed a longer life on NBC, he's already able to joke about certain aspects of bringing a little religion to prime time. Reflecting on some of the show's reviews, he acknowledged that the series was at times less than perfect. "Most publications with a religious bent said they liked the show, 'But boy, it's not as good as the Bible,'" he said with a laugh. "I always thought that was a very fair criticism."

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