If you’re a subscriber to Mubi then the chances are you’ll be familiar with the impending release of Kingdom: Exodus, the long-awaited third season of Lars von Trier’s wholly unique TV drama. Known as Riget in its native Denmark, the show is one of the true gems of the ’90s, the kind of droll fever dream that you may have found during a late-night channel hopping session and wondered if you’d dreamed it. Set at the Rigshospitalet, the largest hospital in Denmark, the show follows the eccentric staff and patients as they encounter supernatural phenomena, bureaucratic nightmares, the occasional monster, and an ongoing war of attrition between the Danes and Swedes. This is the sort of show where commentary on the plot is provided by a Greek chorus of dishwashers with Down Syndrome, and a Swedish doctor has a thing for Tetra-Pak.
While the extremely controversial von Trier, a known asshole and accused harasser, is best known for his works of extreme nihilism, The Kingdom was a very different beast. Sure, it was bizarre and bleak, but it was also absurd in the true meaning of the word. Imagine if Twin Peaks had a twisted baby with gothic literature that had Udo Kier’s face and you’re partly there. Kingdom: Exodus is to the original two-season show what The Return was to Twin Peaks. There’s a major time jump, a bunch of familiar faces amid a slew of new ones, some seriously meta-narratives, and a growing sense that the showrunner might be the only one who really knows what’s going on. There’s really nothing else like it on TV, so I’m delighted that Mubi is screening the first two seasons in time for the premiere of Kingdom: Exodus (I shall review the first two episodes before they drop since I saw them at TIFF. Spoiler: they’re great.)
Of course, when something not in the English language gets a sliver of attention from us monolinguists, it takes no time at all before American studios demand a remake without subtitles. The results can be, to put it mildly, mixed. Some of us still refuse to acknowledge that there’s a British version of Call My Agent! The translations can stumble in more than just the language department. Cultural differences are seldom as universal as Hollywoodized narratives insist, nor is humor. So, who would you hire to tackle an extremely Danish horror-comedy-satire-drama made by the guy who originated Dogme cinema and terrorized us with Breaking the Waves? How about the all-American king of horror literature?
Stephen King discovered The Kingdom while rummaging through a video store during production of the not-great TV version of The Shining. Instantly enraptured by what he saw, he decided he had to adapt it. He tried to get his hands on the rights, only to discover that Columbia Pictures had acquired them and intended to make a film from it. After five years of development hell, they realized that it simply would not work in a two-hour format. Eventually, King acquired the rights in exchange for the film option on one of his novellas, Secret Window, Secret Garden. It would be the first time he’d adapted someone else’s work rather than his own, and perhaps his most ambitious effort for television. While King was obviously borrowing from von Trier’s work, his biggest influences came from his own work and life.
King has never been shy about using his own experiences in his books. How many of his novels feature writers from Maine with addiction issues? Things were no different for Kingdom Hospital. In 1999, while on a quiet walk, King was hit by a speeding van. The accident left him with severe injuries, including a collapsed lung and multiple fractures. Amputation was a real possibility. He survived but was left in agonizing pain for a long time. He turned to his work for distraction and catharsis, and the crash wound up being a major part of this new take on von Trier’s series.
Kingdom Hospital is an oddity, even by Stephen King standards, yet it feels entirely within the context of his past work. It’s really more of a King story than a von Trier one, even if the bare bones of the source material are still here. Its point-of-view protagonist, amid a vast ensemble, is Peter Rickman, an artist in a coma after being hit by a van. The accident triggered his latent psychic abilities, and now his spirit wanders through the hospital, which contains all manner of paranormal curiosities in part thanks to its location on the site of a devastating mill fire that killed dozens of children. Rickman is a King hero, cut from the same cloth as many a tortured creative with powers he does not want or understand.
Other characters share sturdier parallels with their Danish counterparts. The legendary Diane Ladd plays Sally Druse, a psychic written off by doctors as a hypochondriac who is called Mrs. Drusse in The Kingdom. The Dane-hating Dr. Helmer is now Dr. Stegman, an egomaniacal surgeon trying to avoid malpractice suits as he seeks initiation into a secret society at the hospital. There’s a haunted child wandering the halls of the hospital, and the threat of imminent destruction from unseen forces. It’s easy to see why all of this appealed to King, especially given his penchant for soap opera dramatics. His most effective novels often share DNA with the frequently maligned genre. Consider how ‘Salem’s Lot is essentially a remake of Peyton Place, a near-baroque examination of small-town malice that seems doomed to crumble long before the vampire turns up.
But, as much as The Kingdom offers King opportunities to do what he does best, it also led to him relying on many of his well-worn narrative crutches. By extending about five hours of content to 15, King adds a ton of extra subplots and characters who either contribute little to the overall story or have their narrative threads left untied for entire episodes. King works best with big emotions, with characters who, while layered in their complexities, fall clearly into the barriers of hero or villain. Ambivalence isn’t necessarily his strongest quality, which is a problem since so much of what works about von Trier’s series is that sense of malaise among the hospital’s staff. Most of them don’t have the time or inclination to do anything other than their jobs, mostly because they’re consistently waylaid by personal and bureaucratic jackassery. King wants the lines to be clearer, and thus the American versions are far less intriguing than their Danish counterparts.
He also just can’t do humor. The Kingdom is genuinely laugh-out-loud hilarious with its bone-dry one-liners and mixing of absurd with mundane. There’s specificity to its vision that King can’t replicate or reimagine. The best laughs come unintentionally, thanks to the Sesame Street-style animal spirits, including a viciously toothed anteater, that wander the hospital. Also, some of the animals talk. One of them is a dog with a German accent. It doesn’t work.
ABC didn’t seem especially enthused or confident about Kingdom Hospital despite its impressive pedigree. It was reported that King put a lot of his own money into the production and advertising when he felt that the network was failing Kingdom Hospital. It didn’t help that the show was put in the same time slot as CSI, which was one of the true TV mega hits of the era. Reviews were mixed-to-negative and ratings stumbled over the course of the season. It was quickly canceled, left to be forgotten by all except the most hardcore King and von Trier acolytes.
Is Kingdom Hospital worth watching? It’s certainly an oddity but I’m not sure it holds much appeal for those who aren’t King completionists. The roots of something great are here but they’re untethered to the wider picture. It can’t decide how faithful it wants to be to the source material but lacks the cultural foundations necessary to pull off something more accurate to von Trier’s take. It would be more worth your time to check out the original show and marathon it over a cozy weekend before Kingdom: Exodus drops. Still, Kingdom Hospital is a fascinating relic of a hyper-specific time in network television and the career of a publishing megastar. Who knows, perhaps King will be inspired to take on Kingdom: Exodus in the near future. I wouldn’t mind seeing how he tackles the robot dishwasher.