‘Of Kings and Prophets’: A new spin on the Old Testament
Religion, politics, and a good measure of sex and violence combine in the ABC series “Of Kings and Prophets,” which debuted March 8 and chronicles the Old Testament story of David’s rise from shepherd to king of Israel, along with his complicated relationship with his predecessor, King Saul.
“I don’t think there’s a better story in the Bible than the story of King David. He was, in many ways, the first rock star. Three thousand years later, we’re still singing his songs,” executive producer Reza Aslan said. “He was very complicated, vain, vengeful. He had many wives, most of whom he betrayed. He betrayed his friends. But he was also deeply pious. He loved God, he was constantly asking for forgiveness. His story is full of twists and turns, violence and sexuality, and that makes for a good television drama.”
The latter two elements made it a tough sell. Aslan, who is also a best-selling author, and Mahyad Tousi, his partner at BoomGen Studios, first developed the idea for the series back in 2010 but potential buyers were scandalized by it, Aslan said.
“They thought religious people would be offended. But all of it is in the Bible.”
The books of the prophet Samuel were the primary source, supplemented by historical accounts and scholarly texts.
“It’s fairly loyal to the scripture,” Aslan said. “But often motivations are left out [of the source material]. Rarely is there any discussion of what drives people’s actions, what they’re thinking, what their relationships are. We had to fill in a lot of that empty space, create motivations and dialogue. Certain things happen in the scripture without explanation and that doesn’t work on screen.”
The first of nine weekly episodes launched with King Saul (Ray Winstone) battling to unify the Twelve Tribes of Israel and David (Olly Rix) tending his sheep.
David is anointed by Samuel (Mohammad Bakri) in Episode 2 and has his famous slingshot showdown with Goliath in the third episode. Aslan said he has “at least four seasons already mapped out.”
“This story lends itself to a gradual telling,” Aslan said.
Shot in Cape Town, South Africa, for its verisimilitude to the lush landscape of ancient Israel, the production was an enormous undertaking. “We built entire cities. We have many hundreds of extras. We’re talking about an epic project on a massive scale,” Aslan said, likening it to “Game of Thrones” — “with fewer dragons.”
To achieve historical authenticity in the settings, props and costumes, the production had scholars and experts on call. Aslan recalled rejecting early sketches that portrayed Saul’s palace as too grand and ornate.
“This was a tiny, impoverished, irrelevant, insignificant sect in a tiny backwater, surrounded by mighty empires that wanted them gone. Three thousand years later, of course, there are no Hittites, Edomites, Philistines or Egyptian empire, and Israel is still here.”
Efforts were made to cast “Of Kings and Prophets” with diversity in mind. There are Palestinian-Israeli, Lebanese, Maori, Cuban, African-American and multiple mixed-race actors in regular roles, as well as several strong female characters. Aslan and Tousi are Iranian Muslims; and co-creators Adam Cooper and Bill Collage are Jewish and Christian, respectively.
“We’ve got Muslims, a Christian and a Jew. It’s not like we tried to do that, but it happened that way and it was fortuitous,” Aslan said. “David is an incredibly important part of the Tanakh but he’s hugely important to Christians and Muslims, too.”
Aslan, who was 7 when his family fled Iran during the revolution of 1979, said he saw firsthand the power that religion has to transform societies for better or for worse.
“That’s always left a deep impression upon me,” he said. “I’ve always been fascinated by religion and how it creates identity, the power that it has over society and the role of religion in politics because I’ve been deeply impacted in a very personal way.”
Aslan holds a bachelor of arts in religious studies from Santa Clara University, a master of theological studies from Harvard, a doctorate in the sociology of religions from UC Santa Barbara and a master of fine arts from the University of Iowa. He’s a best-selling author (“Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth”) and interviews writers on his weekly Ovation talk show, “Rough Draft With Reza Aslan.”
“I’ve had the opportunity for the last decade to bring some measure of reason and logic and calm conversation to the public debate about the role of religion in society, and I take that very seriously,” he said.
Aslan believes that the story told in “Of Kings and Prophets” remains relevant to the modern world. “In David’s time, a tribe and God were one and the same. When David talks about Elohim, he’s talking about his own identity and his tribe’s identity. Faith is a part of who you are and how you see the world, how you make your decisions, how you interpret your actions and everyone else’s actions,” he said. “It’s as true today as it was 3,000 years ago.”
“Of Kings and Prophets” airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on ABC.