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NBC's Kings a biblical, bounteous feast

Ian McShane and Chris Egan are Silas and David in NBC's Kings.

Premiering: Sunday, March 15th at 7 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Ian McShane, Chris Egan, Susanna Thompson, Allison Miller, Dylan Baker, Sebastian Stan, Eamonn Walker, Wes Studi
Produced by: Michael Green

Whatever becomes of it, NBC's crowning achievement this season is Kings.

Ambitious, biblical and stirring when the occasion demands, this modernized fable of ruthless King Silas and an idealistic, heroic David succeeds as both double-dealing soap opera and nourishing morality play. In a thin soup season of low aspirations, Kings delivers an oft-stunning punch, beginning with Sunday night's two-hour "event" premiere (7 p.m. central).

Ian McShane of Deadwood fame reboots as the grand poobah of Gilboa, a kingdom whose capitol is the shiny, newly built city of Shiloh. King Silas Benjamin, whose church-defying bent makes him part Henry VIII, looms very large over mostly contented subjects.

Kings begins with his Pope-like address to an admiring and vast throng. Citing God and feeling "blessed," King Silas proves to be roughly equal parts despot and visionary. You don't want to cross him. But he has some good ideas.

After its grand entrance, Kings fast-forwards to two years later, where "The War with Gath Continues," we're told in print. On its front lines is young David Shepherd (Chris Egan), whose father died in battle and whose mother opposed his enlistment.

David, anointed in a brief earlier scene by the near-mystical Rev. Ephram Samuels (Eamonn Walker), is fated to take on Gath tanks known as Goliaths. In the process, he also rescues the king's son, Jack (Sebastian Stan), an officer who had been taken hostage. "David Slays Goliath," the newspaper headlines inevitably trumpet. King Silas reciprocates by inviting David to a big banquet in his honor before making him the Gilboa military's press liason.

All of this occurs in suitably epic fashion. Kings has impressive scope, particularly during its battleground scenes. It's made to order for a big-screen high-definition set, not a computer. You might want to drop a few grapes in your mouth while watching from a comfy couch.

Sunday's first two hours also introduce the king's feisty daughter, Michelle (Allison Miller), whose social activism makes her a nice match for David. But Queen Rose (Susanna Thompson) doesn't much like the commoner. Nor does General Linus Abner (Wes Studi), a military adviser who favors quick exterminations of troublesome types.

There's also the queen's brother, William Cross (Dylan Baker), who wants the war with the Gaths to continue and threatens to drain the king's treasury if it doesn't.

Other palace intrigues abound, but they're best left discovered on your own. Symbolism also has its role, never more so than when a flight of monarch butterflies form a crown on David's head. That sounds more than a little over the top, but Kings makes it fly.

McShane ably flexes his Al Swearengen glower when needed, but of course isn't allowed to curse up any storms on an advertiser-supported broadcast network. He's grandiloquent instead, proclaiming at one point, "Evolution is just one of God's many tools. Like me."

Egan, who bears a fairly strong resemblance to Matt Damon, is suitably torn between returning to his home of Port Prosperity or serving his king for what he hopes will be the greater good. His war-weary mother desperately wants him home alone with her. Because as she puts it in the following Sunday's third hour, "People with destinies, things don't go well for them. They die old and unhappy or young and unfulfilled."

NBC has ordered 13 episodes of Kings, which will face the usual uphill ratings climb on a network that's become virtually bereft of hit shows. It would be good to be Kings on a rival network with more visibility at the moment.

But following Dancing with the Stars, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation or American Idol isn't an option on NBC. That doesn't mean the Peacock isn't trying, though. And with Kings, it's both tried and succeeded -- ratings be damned.

GRADE: A-minus