To me, the description for DIRECTV’s KINGDOM, a series about a family involved in mixed martial arts (MMA) fighting, reads like a Cinemax program description. It’s centered around gritty violence and rough characters, which, to be honest, is not something I’d get excited about watching. However, sitting down with the actual pilot, it starts to evoke strains of Rocky, a terrific film, and the family drama is a larger part of the story than anticipated, to its credit. KINGDOM is actually a really good show.
KINGDOM takes place at the Navy Street gym, which is run by Alvey Kulina (Frank Grillo, The Gates, Warrior). Alvey is a kind man, refusing to kick out patrons who don’t pay. Yet, he’s far from a pushover, having cut off one of his sons, Jay (Jonathan Tucker, Parenthood, The Ruins), who is on a destructive path. Alvey is happy, living with girlfriend and business partner, Lisa Prince (Kiele Sanchez, The Glades, The Purge: Anarchy), and training his other son, Nate (Jonas Brother Nick Jonas), a promising up-and-coming MMA fighter who may hold the key to Alvey’s financial problems.
The family dynamic in KINGDOM is rich and complex. All of those actors listed in the above paragraph hold their weight, Jonas having matured into a real actor, and the rest having credits enough already to prove they can do something. Some of the players get more interaction with each other than others, so the series has plenty left to explore, and I find myself drawn in to this group, enough to overcome my aversion to the source material.
If you love fighting, you’ll get plenty of that, plus a strong story to back it up. There are bloody scenes in the first episode, mainly involving Nick. By the time those come around, viewers have been given reason to invest in the outcome, and that adds tension to the proceedings. You may be nervous for Nate, wanting him to succeed, and that’s exactly what a pilot should accomplish.
Despite the tension between Alvey and Jay, it’s a relatively happy family. Jay lives with Nate, so he isn’t completely cut off from his clan, and there’s a truce struck. Jay stays away from the gym, for the most part, but supports his brother. Surely, the chemistry will change a bit as Jay gets more involved, as he must, but that’s OK. That’s what we want to see, conflict that will lead to growth.
Enter into this Ryan Wheeler (Matt Lauria, Parenthood, Friday Night Lights), Lisa’s ex-fiancé, a prize-winning fighter, who has just been released from prison. Ryan and Alvey are good friends, but Ryan made a lot of mistakes, hence why he has been behind bars. Ryan is the total wild card of KINGDOM. He says he’s cleaned himself up, and most of the initial hour backs this up, seeing him attending meetings and not forcing himself back into a situation he has been absent from. But can anyone really change, and once back in the old environment, will Ryan revert to his former ways? And will Alvey let Ryan come back to the gym, either as a fighter or a trainer?
It would be really easy for KINGDOM to get soapy here, dwelling too much on Lisa and Ryan’s former relationship and distracting from the larger arcs. Thankfully, the writers understand how the pieces are supposed to fit together, and don’t let melodrama overrun the quality kind. The story is a bit of a slow burn in that we don’t yet know what kind of implications Ryan brings, even after having been around for a full episode, but that’s a good thing, letting these story and characters take a natural course.
I see KINGDOM as sort of like Showtime’s Ray Donovan, although the characters here are more likeable and the plot is easier to get drawn into. It’s definitely a worthy television entry, and as someone who doesn’t get DIRECTV, so hasn’t been familiar with their original programming, it makes me want to see more.
KINGDOM airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m., beginning tonight, exclusively on DIRECTV’s Audience network.