The Walking Dead has caused serious damage to zombie TV. For all its popularity, it sports the weakest characters ever seen in a zombie series, recycles the same boring and exhaustingly repetitive tropes and beats, and has yet to offer anything that hasn’t already been offered by past zombie entertainment. And I say this as a former The Walking Dead fan!
Zombies are well overdone—not just in TV and movies, but video games and board games as well. So color me surprised when I threw on Kingdom, a new Netflix series that looked like yet another zombie borefest but turned out to be a welcome breath of fresh air in an exceedingly stale zombie landscape.
Kingdom is a Korean production that takes place in an alternative medieval Korea, right at the start of a zombie epidemic outbreak.
Right off the bat, I was blown away by the cinematography. Based on my experiences with various Korean dramas and films, I wasn’t expecting anything spectacular—but Kingdom is something else, rivaling some of the best-filmed shows to come out of HBO. It’s moody and beautiful, perfectly capturing the primitivity of medieval Korea. I honestly felt transported to another world while watching this series.
What sets it apart from substandard zombie shows is its insistence on realized characters, fleshed out with backstories and relationships brimming with dramatic potential. The first season is only 6 hour-long episodes, but already an entire medieval nation pops out of the screen as if it were alive. With more seasons to come, I’m drooling with excitement to see where the story will take us.
And yes, there is a real story in Kingdom. It’s not just a battle of attrition against zombies as our heroes move from shelter to shelter without any narrative stakes. The zombie outbreak is equal parts backdrop and instigator of events, but the heart of Kingdom deals with class warfare, social inequalities, vengeance, redemption, and so much more. Like I said, strongly realized characters.
Don’t get me wrong: the zombies play a key role in the story as well, and they’re scary. These aren’t meandering corpses that magically get the jump on characters simply because they were “off camera.” No, the zombies in Kingdom are fast, deadly, and ravenous. The art and makeup in this show is top-notch—always stylish and fitting for the scene, never gratuitous or excessively gory. (I say this as someone who tends not to stomach gore too well, but your mileage may vary.)
Cheap thrills? No. Kingdom offers real thrills.
Not to mention that the zombies in Kingdom have a particular characteristic—one I won’t spoil here because it isn’t mentioned until episode two—that’s interesting to watch and offers some interesting narrative options. This isn’t a “plot twisty” kind of show, but there are a handful of them that are fun to experience.
To be fair, while Kingdom is certainly a new take on the zombie genre—in much the same way that Train to Busan offered a refreshing spin on the modern urban zombie story—it doesn’t truly innovate beyond the setting.
The characters clearly fit into predetermined archetypes. You have the disgraced prince who needs to clear his name; the comic relief but loyal bodyguard; the inwardly strong woman held down by a patriarchal society; the mysterious rogue who’s outwardly aggressive but has a heart of gold. It gets better as the season progresses, but the archetypal writing is painfully obvious at the start and does bring down what could have been excellent to simply good.
But while the protagonists are tolerable, the primary antagonist in season one (and what I assume will be the rest of the series) is a cartoonish villain. He’s mad, harumph. He wants the throne so he can rule, harumph. He’s involved in some shady conspiracies and is ruthlessly murderous against anyone who stands in his way, harumph. Even with the bits of backstory that are revealed, this guy—and the female antagonist by his side—are eye-rollingly bland. The only saving grace is that he never twirls his beard menacingly, although there’s still time for that in season two.
Now, I’m ragging pretty hard on the characters, it’s really not that bad. It’s just that Kingdom executes so well in all its other areas that the average-level writing for its characters is more disappointing than normal. These characters are par for the course, but I wish they were more.
Kingdom is based on a webcomic series called The Kingdom of the Gods. I’ve never read or heard of it so I have no idea how faithful it is to the source material. However, the writer for the show is the author of the webcomics, so I imagine it isn’t too far off.
I have high hopes for the show. Given that Netflix presumably knows where the webcomics stand and where the story is going, I’m hopeful that my complaints above will be addressed as Kingdom finds its footing as a proper TV series. I look forward to season two, which has already begun filming.
Trivia: A crew member on Kingdom died due to overwork. I pray that season two will let off, even if it means a longer production period.
Trivia: Each episode cost more than $1.78 million. By comparison, each episode of Game of Thrones season one cost about $6 million.
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