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ABC's Of Kings and Prophets Is a Swords-and-Sandals Slog

The Game of Thrones rip-off is all style and no substance

Liz Raftery

ABC's Of Kings and Prophets is an epic mess.

The Biblical drama, which premieres Tuesday, is a shameless attempt to rip off a certain HBO juggernaut and make it suitable for a broadcast network. (Showrunner Chris Brancato christened the series "a non-dragon version of Game of Thrones" at the Television Critics Association winter previews in January.) The endeavor fails on multiple levels.

Set in 1000 B.C., Of Kings and Prophets stars Ray Winstone as King Saul, who's trying to unite the 12 tribes of Israel and fight off threats ranging from the former shepherd/future king David (Olly Rix) to the Prophet Samuel (Mohammad Bakri), who believes resurrecting a generations-old war with the Amalekites is God's will. Oh, there's also the matter of the encroaching Philistine army.

Of Kings and Prophets turns a Biblical story into a soap opera

Tuesday's premiere is all style and no substance - a jumbled head-scratcher that will leave everyone but the most devoted Bible readers confused about who's warring and sleeping with whom, and why. But maybe that's the point. Judging from the pilot, the show is much less interested in character development than it is in showing gory violence and sex. (Brancato again: "violent ... sex-drenched ... it's one of the world's first soap operas").

Of course, this is still ABC, so the fight scenes are confined to hastily edited-together shots of clinking swords (or gnarling teeth, in the case of a lion who preys on David's sheep) and blood splatters, with nary a coherent narrative to be found. There's also a few soapy love triangles in the mix, but one has to first be emotionally invested in characters as individuals before becoming emotionally invested in their romantic entanglements, and unfortunately this is something Of Kings and Prophets never achieves.

The women in the show, primarily Saul's wife, Queen Ahinoam (Simone Kessell), and daughters Michal and Mirav (Maisie Richardson-Sellers and So You Think You Can Dance winner Jeanine Mason, respectively), are nearly interchangeable, serving little purpose other than to be pawns in the political games played by their male counterparts. This is in keeping with the gender roles of the time, to be sure, but the creators have already taken such liberties with their source material, they surely could have written a couple of compelling story lines for the female characters beyond losing a loved one in battle.

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As David, Rix gives a fairly low-watt performance, basically getting by on being the show's eye candy. In contrast, Winstone's blustery, tantrum-laden turn as Saul is more suited to a Shakespearean stage than a primetime network drama. Is this The Madness of King Saul we're watching? That might be more engaging, at least.

Originally slated for a fall premiere, Of Kings and Prophets was pushed to a midseason debut (amid reports of recastings and a trimmed episode order). There's no question why; the only mystery here is why ABC is gambling on the show at all.

Of Kings and Prophets premieres Tuesday at 10/9c on ABC. Watch a trailer here: