ABC's new drama "Of Kings and Prophets" attempts to treat the Bible as just another historical document. Since it is a television show, this means two things: It opens with a horrific battle scene, and it is peppered with steaming/scheming sex.
Just as the primary purpose of the nascent Internet initially seemed to be a wider distribution of porn, television's new digital technology has focused almost exclusively on the awfulness of battle. Vikings, Saxons, pirates, early American rebels — we see them fight, we see them die in bloody sprays of sundered flesh and exploding bone made even more gruesome by stop-motion photography and increasingly excellent sound effects.
So it is with "Of Kings and Prophets," which opens as Saul (Ray Winstone) leads the increasingly united tribes of Israel to victory against the Philistines. His face is smeared with blood, his exhaustion palpable, but still he hacks and thrusts and howls his way to triumph.
This is what it looks like to do the service of the Lord.
Or at least his prophet, Samuel (Mohammad Bakri), who, following God's orders, anointed Saul as king. And Samuel is not done yet. Saul returns from battle to finalize the tribe's unity with the wedding of his daughter to a son of the House of Judah (cue hot broadcast network sex), but Samuel has another order from on high. For the Lord to bless the union, Saul must slaughter the Amalekites.
When the king balks, Samuel makes it clear that what the Lord has given, he can take away. While Queen Ahinoam (Simone Kessell) suggests that Saul ignore Samuel, who may have his own agenda, Saul struggles to be both leader and servant.
Meanwhile, over Bethlehem way, a young shepherd is engaged in a very different sort of battle. A lion is slaughtering the sheep of David's (Olly Rix) father. Without sheep there is no money; without money, the shepherds cannot pay tribute. So David offers to kill the lion to save his father from a flogging.
All of which means that David eventually makes his way to court in great acclaim just as Saul is being told God is training his replacement.
There are moments when "Of Kings and Prophets" seems sincere and very timely in its examination of the tense and historically troubling relationship between politics and religion. When kings are truly "anointed" by God, prophets wield an enormous amount of power; prophecy is historically a very messy business.
But those moments are few and far between, at least in early episodes, which seem more interested in proving once again that people are people no matter what the century or how true the script is to the time period. So David has a bro, Joab (David Walmsey), who, in a scene that appears to be a legal requirement of all period adventure drama, urges him to give up his quest for the pleasures of women and wine, and the queen and princesses are allowed, if not encouraged, to speak their minds.
It also means that Saul is not above receiving the, er, attentions of a servant, which is distressing in both text and subtext.
The result overall is certainly less biblical, in the traditional sense, but it's also far from epic. The tribes are not the kingdoms of Westeros, nor are they meant to be, but in this story, the real relationship worth exploring is that between Samuel and God.
Unfortunately, while creators Adam Cooper and Bill Collage have no problem with amping up the sex and violence of the Book of Samuel, they draw the line at the truly adult material; the nature of God is assumed, and those who question come to sticky ends.
The casting director has made an effort with the large and often-confusing cast (Goliath is the tall nasty one), but the male leads — Winstone, Rix and Walmsey — are all obvious subjects of Great Britain. (The British accent remains the lingua franca of all period drama, including, apparently, the biblical ones.)
Winstone does a good enough job capturing Saul's ferocity as well as his bewilderment, and Rix is as dreamy a David as you could ever imagine while also being lethal with a sling. In the second episode, they share a brief and powerful moment as two men extolling the virtues of the simple life, but we know where this is headed, and it is neither field nor farm.
Neither, it must be said, seems half the leader or politician that Queen Ahinoam is, but then the original material is fairly famous, so there is only so far the creators can stray.
'Of Kings and Prophets'
When: 10 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-14-DSV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with advisories for suggestive dialogue, sex and violence)