What Would Jesus Watch?

Back in March, David stood ready to slay Goliath, and almost no one was there to witness it. That was when NBC debuted Kings, a modern retelling of the biblical underdog story. Among the show's blessings were its impressive cast, anchored by Golden Globe winner Ian McShane; imaginative director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend); and a favorable critical reception. But the premiere was trounced in the ratings, finishing last in its time slot and thereby missing an opportunity to defeat the giant—in this case, Desperate Housewives. After failing to find an audience, it's Kings that's in a sling. The show won't be returning for a second season.

The untimely demise of Kings, which ends its 13-episode run this month, raises questions about why, in a culture where a vast majority of us say we believe in God, so few of us seem to want to watch him on television. No religiously themed show has found its footing on the major networks since CBS's Joan of Arcadia, about a teenage girl who got visits from God, was canceled in 2005 after only two seasons. ABC's Eli Stone, about a prophetic lawyer, looked poised to end the curse but was also canceled after 26 episodes.

Granted, maybe Kings isn't the best litmus test for the public's tolerance for a religious show. It was stylized (Goliath is a tank, not a man) and soapy, as though Falcon Crest were a city in ancient Israel. It could be that Christian audiences didn't cotton to the modernity of Kings, a -theory that dovetails with the stereotype of devout Christians as a fusty, oversensitive bunch. After all, the most successful religious network shows, such as Touched by an Angel and Highway to Heaven, are also the most treacly. NBC's The Book of Daniel, in which Aidan Quinn played a debauched Episcopal priest, failed not in spite of Christians but because of them, after complaints about the show's content caused advertisers to pull out.

But Kings' creator, Michael Green, has suggested that his drama didn't fail so much as NBC failed to attract Christian audiences to it. "They were very confused with how to market our show," said Green. "I got nothing but support and interest in the religious or magical or somehow belief-inspired storytelling. When the time came for the marketing, there was a very deliberate, outspoken, loud desire articulated by them that 'we are not going to say King David.' They just felt that would be detrimental to the show."

It's no wonder a show like Kings would be difficult to package. There's a notion, mostly borne out, that a religious program can serve only one master. Either it attracts people of faith while repelling the secular, or vice versa. In today's ultra-segmented television landscape, a religiously themed show on network TV has to appeal to the faithful and faithless alike in order to trump the ratings of a Desperate Housewives. And it has to have a cool factor. Television has gotten edgier; a show like Highway to Heaven would be a conspicuous fit in any network lineup. The next religiously themed show to make it on network TV will likely be one like Battlestar Galactica, which was sleek sci-fi on its surface but deeply religious underneath, posing questions about faith and the legitimacy of the soul. When it comes to religion, it's all in the delivery.