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Originally published Thursday, March 12, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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NBC's "Kings" unlikely to rule Sunday nights

The makers of "Heroes" try to save TV again with "Kings." But reviewer Robert Philpot doesn't think the show has what it takes to rule.

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With his craggy face, hooded eyes and growl of a voice, Ian McShane could come off intimidating and authoritative ordering a sandwich at Subway. He used his commanding presence well in HBO's "Deadwood," and he uses it well in "Kings," NBC's ambitious new Sunday-night drama in which McShane plays King Silas Benjamin, ruler of the land of Gilboa.

King Silas doesn't wear a crown, but his head still lies uneasy — not only is Gilboa at war with neighboring Gath, but it sometimes seems as if everyone in Gilboa, including Silas' queen (Susanna Thompson) and son (Sebastian Stan) has some sort of scheme that's at odd with Silas' plans.

In "Deadwood," McShane gave the dominant performance, but he was surrounded by actors who were operating at his level, and working in a show with a vivid, grimy atmosphere. McShane towers over the rest of "Kings"' cast like one of the vertiginous skyscrapers in Shiloh, Gilboa's largest city (which looks a lot like New York with more computer-generated effects); a few, including Thompson and Dylan Baker as Silas' malevolently corporate brother-in-law, are able to keep up, but McShane leaves most of his castmates eating his dust.

That is, if there were any dust to eat. Shiloh is an unusually clean city, and its pristine look lends "Kings" a lot of slickness that it could really do without. The series is being pitched as a contemporary retelling of the David and Goliath tale, but as you can probably tell, it's a pretty loose retelling (the show doesn't take place in the future so much as it does in an alternate universe). The David here is David Shepherd (get it?), a young soldier who commits an act of almost inadvertent heroism and becomes part of King Silas' inner circle.

Christopher Egan, who looks like the little brother of "The Mentalist's" Simon Baker and is so handsome you almost expect his teeth to let off a sparkle when he smiles, plays David as naive but resourceful, and he'll need that resourcefulness because it seems as if everyone in Gilboa is plotting against him as well as Silas. The one exception — maybe — is Silas' daughter (Allison Miller), who connects with David, much to her parents' chagrin.

Created and written by Michael Green, a former executive producer of "Heroes," "Kings" shares that show's sense of self-seriousness, although it does escape from becoming the overplotted muddle that "Heroes" became this season. But that self-seriousness hurts "Kings," which doesn't have enough fun with its imaginative concept or make it dramatic enough.

The young actors — Egan, Miller and Stan — all seem like they've walked over from "Gossip Girl," which does a much better job of telling power-struggle stories without seeming so stiff about it. "Kings" looks elegant and ambitious, but in the end, this emperor isn't wearing any clothes.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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