A few years before palace intrigue and dynastic power struggles both fantastical (Game of Thrones) and semi-historical (The Crown) became prestige TV fodder, NBC took “a bold swing” with its short-lived series Kings. A new oral history of the show published on Vulture today remembers Kings as “a just-weird-enough-to-work biblical epic that could appeal to both religious audiences and agnostic, liberal viewers,” a play for “prestige and critical acclaim” at a time when traditional networks were losing ground to more daring content on cable.
Some of us who watched Kings, however, remember it instead as that bonkers, high-budget show in which Sebastian “Winter Soldier” Stan — who starred in the superhero films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe — played a handsome, morally ambiguous gay prince.
In Kings, a contemporary re-telling of the biblical story of King David which ran for one season in 2009, Stan played crown prince Jack Benjamin, the only son of King Silas, and heir to the throne of the fictional kingdom of Gilboa (i.e. an alternate reality version of America). According to series creator Michael Green, Stan was the first role cast for the show.
As Stan told Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendonk and Jackson McHenry, “It was only one audition. Meant to be.”
The show’s main conflict revolved around the threat to Silas’s grip on power posed by an idealistic young war hero, David (played by Christopher Egan). But Jack, whose public face is that of a dissolute womanizer, presents issues for the Benjamin dynasty as well: He’s a closeted gay man.
But as Green explains, the show took an interesting approach to its depiction of a gay character in what was ostensibly a biblical epic: the story of David (the prince of Israel) and his closest friend Jonathan. In the Bible, David says of Jonathan, “You have been very pleasant to me. Your love to me was more wonderful than the love of women.”
“The idea in the pilot that Silas says he might have been accepting if Jack wasn’t in line to take the throne was important to me because I wanted it to be about the family business, not about personal shame or looking down on it,” Green said. “I wanted Jack to struggle. He didn’t think he was a great person and then he’s forced to look in this mirror of David.”
One aspect of the characters that didn’t get fully explored due to the show’s cancellation was the feelings Jack begins to have for David. “I was really interested to play out when David became aware of Jack’s feelings for him. I don’t know that it would have been erotic love, but I don’t know that it wouldn’t have been. We just didn’t get to explore it fully,” Green said.
“I think, in season two, we were gonna explore more of him embracing himself and growing into it. In that first season, it was important for him to go through all that. He needed to get past his father’s approval and accept himself wholeheartedly,” said Stan.
“My hope was, by the time we got to those stories, the buy-in on the show and the tenor of the country would allow it to be as sophisticated as if I was producing and writing it now,” Green said. The show, after all, aired in 2009, six years before the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges legalized same-sex marriage in the U.S., and before even President Barack Obama voiced his support for marriage equality.
Green says now that he regrets the decision to kill off Jack’s lover in the show’s first season. “He was this wonderful actor who was in a Broadway touring company, and we couldn’t have him, so we thought we’d rather lose him than just pretend he wasn’t there,” he says. “But the presumption of suicide in a gay character is something that has rightfully been dinged as a trope. No one ever yelled at me about it, but I feel like I should have spoken to more people and had known what that error might have meant to some people.”
Reflecting on the show and his role as a closeted prince, Stan says, “It was always about a good script, great complex characters, and good people to work with. The rest didn’t matter. I still feel that way.”