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Kingdom deserves a fighting chance

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A family drama centered around MMA fighters, Kingdom has flown under the radar for much of the summer, failing to garner the pre-premiere buzz of fellow fall non-network offerings Transparent and The Affair. Featuring a strong cast, a unique setting, and an alternately energetic and reflective tone, the series has a lot going for it and could easily grow into a surprise hit for DirecTV, if viewers can find it. Kingdom follows former professional MMA fighter Alvey Kulina (Frank Grillo) who owns a gym with his girlfriend, Lisa Prince (Kiele Sanchez), and trains fighters, including his sons Jay (Jonathan Tucker) and Nate (Nick Jonas). The series picks up as Lisa’s former fiancé, and Alvey’s former protégé, Ryan Wheeler (Matt Lauria) is released from prison.

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For many, the allure of Kingdom will be its depiction of a world rarely explored in scripted drama: that of MMA. There are very few fights, but each is given tremendous weight and the culminating sequence of the pilot, a pivotal bout for Nate, is well shot and choreographed. The series backs away from gimmicks like mid-fight POV camera work, opting instead for a blend of long shots from the crowd and medium shots within the ring, giving the viewer a good sense of the physicality and movement of the fighters. There’s also a clear distinction between altercations inside and outside of the ring. When violence erupts, it is quick and decisive, and the rest of the time, that energy is contained—for a series about fighters, Kingdom is surprisingly comfortable with stillness.

Rather than the fights themselves, the series focuses on the lives of its characters, from training to recovery to the tedium that comes with paying the bills. A welcome awareness of this last point pervades Kingdom. These are characters struggling to make ends meet. They drive beat-up cars, they ride bikes, they take the bus. Ryan finds a place at Alvey’s gym as much because he presents a potential for future income as because of the bond the two once shared. Money doesn’t come up very frequently on American television; most series have little interest in middle- or low-income families. It’s refreshing to follow characters for whom rent is a legitimate and ever-present concern.

There will be many who tune in to Kingdom for its setting, but it has a lot more to offer. The performances across the board are engaging, with Grillo, Lauria, Tucker, and Jonas bringing believable physicality and intensity to their roles. Grillo has a strong presence and centers the series well. Lauria has perhaps the juicier role as Ryan, but Grillo’s performance as Alvey hints at plenty under the surface. If the series can avoid indulging in a tired love-triangle digression, there’s a lot the show can do with this character. Grillo and Lauria have excellent chemistry, and it’s fun to watch them spar, but Ryan’s most interesting moments happen outside the gym. He’s trying to start over and is in an awkward place, and Lauria does a great job conveying this uncertainty.

Just as important as Grillo and Lauria is Sanchez, who is very likable as Lisa. She is smart, tough, and supportive, but she’s also very aware of the gym’s precarious financial situation. Thanks to the writing, direction, and Sanchez’s performance, Lisa never becomes the clichéd nagging girlfriend she so easily could. The character is treated with much more respect than that, which is particularly important in a series as gender imbalanced as this one. The only other prominent recurring female character is Joanna Going’s Christina, who is also treated with tremendous respect by the show, despite her less-than-ideal situation. Going gets less screen time than Sanchez, but makes the most of it. There is some extraneous female nudity, a definite disappointment, and at least one instance of the show using the poor treatment of women as a narrative shortcut, but these are exceptions rather than the rule. There may not be many women on this series, but, on the whole, they are treated well.

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Rounding out the Kulina clan are Jay and Nate. Jonas fits easily into the cast and brings youthful energy to Nate. His storyline looks to be the most predictable of the series, but Jonas has an easy charm that works well for Nate’s more relaxed moments and enough weight to sell the dramatic beats. The surprise in the cast is Tucker, who is fantastic as Jay. Tucker has been great in recurring stints on Parenthood and Hannibal, but here he’s given a much meatier role and he delivers, embodying the extremes of the character. The series backs away pretty quickly from several of Jay’s less desirable habits, but it maintains some of his self-destructive core and does a good job developing his conflicted relationship with his father. Be it Alvey and Nate, Lisa and Jay, or even Ryan and his roommate Keith (Paul Walter Hauser), the interpersonal dynamics are what drive this series and make it worth tuning in for.

It remains to be seen if audiences will find Kingdom amid a cluttered field of fall premieres, but this is a series worth investigating, particularly for fans of MMA. There’s a lot that could go wrong and several arcs could easily take a turn for the melodramatic or predictable, but for now, the series is off to a promising start.

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