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Review: ‘Kingdom’ is More than Nick Jonas & MMA – It’s Your New Favorite Drama

Review: 'Kingdom' is More than Nick Jonas & MMA - It's Your New Favorite Drama

In an ever-expanding sea of original content, some shows are bound to slip through the cracks. Just like in a film market trying to find more and more space for each of its new entries each weekend — often relying on VOD or even Netflix if theaters aren’t cost efficient — TV has more good-to-great dramas than it has channels. While this means more options for the consumer, it also means, well, more options. Viewers are busy. They don’t have time to seek out every new show that pops up, let alone watch all the good ones. Heck, some people still haven’t seen “Friday Night Lights,” and undoubtedly many more missed out on “Warrior.”

I bring up that Emmy-winning drama and that Academy Award-nominated film specifically because they not only seem similar to DirecTV’s second original series, “Kingdom,” airing exclusively to the satellite provider’s subscribers on the Audience Network (Channel 101), and may also suffer their same fate. Neither “Friday Night Lights” nor “Warrior” made a big splash commercially despite obvious talent in front of and behind the camera, as well as loads of critical acclaim: “Friday Night Lights” struggled to get picked up for each of its five seasons, even going so far as to air first on DirecTV before being rebroadcast on NBC in a cost-sharing move for all parties. Meanwhile “Warrior” was released in September 2011 with an immense marketing push, but despite the ads blanketing primetime TV, the film pulled in only $13.6 million domestically against a $25 million budget. 

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At first, it didn’t seem like anyone could get past either’s superficial genre: sports. “Friday Night Lights” was “the football show” and “Warrior” was “that MMA movie.” While anyone who saw either knew they were so much more — “FNL” an intimate family drama about molding our nation’s youth and “Warrior” a fierce story of forgiveness — it wasn’t until much later that Peter Berg and Jason Katims’ Texas-set family drama won over its fans, thanks, in part, to being widely available via Netflix, and we still can’t tell if “Warrior” has made a cultural impact, though it too appeared on the same popular streaming service. All I know is I’ve never recommended the film to anyone who hasn’t then turned around and told all their friends to watch it.

I have a similar feeling regarding “Kingdom,” and not just because it shares actors from the above. Frank Grillo, the trainer from “Warrior” who sticks his neck out for Joel Edgerton’s cash-strapped family man, stars as Alvey Kulina, a former MMA champion who now owns a gym and trains new, younger fighters. He has three proteges, though he’d deny that one of them was his fighter (despite being his son) and another refuses to step into the ring after being imprisoned for assault five-and-a-half years ago. The latter is Ryan Wheeler, played by “Friday Night Lights” veteran Matt Lauria (whose character was best known as “4’s” or “Cafferty,” depending on if you remember Riggins or Coach screaming at him more). 

Wheeler is a confounding character. He’s got the goodie-two-shoes routine down pat, but we get glimpses at his more uninhibited past self via flashback and some later episode regression. That man is bound to come out again, and the wait for it to happen is made all the more fun thanks to Lauria’s subdued performance. The only true straight arrow is also the one reason you might have heard about “Kingdom”: ex-boy band member Nick Jonas. As Alvey’s talented up-and-coming fighter — and son — Nate, Jonas’ first co-lead role is ideal for a star still working through his process. Nate is quiet. He’s a controlled, disciplined fighter with a clear head about what he’s doing, because he internalizes most of his thoughts. This allows for Jonas to let the writing do much of the work for him, coming across as deep despite minimal requirements to expand his acting range. 

The ensemble is rounded out by Alvey’s aforementioned bad seed, Jay, and the gym’s manager, Lisa, who’s also Alvey’s girlfriend (just one of a few cliches fleshed out enough to become fresh). Jonathan Tucker, who guest-starred on Katims’ post-“Friday Night Lights” drama “Parenthood” with Lauria, is a drugged-up drunk of an MMA fighter. Jay is a man (a kid, really) who’s so addicted to the visceral rush, he’ll take it for better, but usually for worse. Tucker plays him with incredible precision, knowing how to walk the razor thin line between annoying troublemaker and charming do-gooder gone rogue. He’s got a glint of danger in his eye that disappears when he knows he’s gone too far, forcing you to root for Jay even when he’s making mistakes.

The same could be said for Lisa, if only she’d be given equal time to develop. Her necessity to the show is largely driven by the love triangle she creates with Alvey and Ryan (Alvey, who she’s currently with, and Ryan who she was engaged to before his “incident”). While the drama here is compelling — watching a very aware Alvey train Ryan toward success in the ring while Alvey the boyfriend is secretly wary of his involvement with Lisa tweaks the formula just enough to work — it leaves poor Lisa as the most hollow of a rich set of characters, by far. 

Yet something tells me she’s going to fill out before the 10-episode Season 1 wraps. The writing in the first four episodes is too grounded and deliberate in its construction to forget to come back around to Lisa. Before the third episode ends, she’s already engaged herself in an endeavor outside both Alvey and Ryan but still very much in the family. It’s not a B-plot. In fact, “Kingdom” has no B-plots. Like “Friday Night Lights” before it — which, I should mention, none of the “Kingdom” writers worked on — “Kingdom” puts its stories on an equal playing field, rolling all of its plots together in a concentrated effort to keep episodes humming along. 

Like many other “sports shows” before it, “Kingdom” would be easy to dismiss as “that MMA TV show.” It most definitely is about the sport and will undoubtedly please anyone obsessed with that world, but it reverberates outside those walls, as well. The best television being made these days tells stories set in worlds unfamiliar to the audience watching. “Mad Men” is of a time before its core viewership and harkens back to the heyday of a time long gone for the rest. “Breaking Bad” took us on a journey through the drug trade through an ideal audience proxy who’d never been there before. Even comedies like “Veep” deconstruct accepted ideas of closely-scrutinized professions. 

“Kingdom” isn’t about to step into the ring with any of those greats. Not yet, but maybe after a few years. What’s troublesome is that it may never reach those heights without an audience seeking it out from the start. So let me make you the same simple promise I made to my friends when I handed them a copy of “Warrior”: If you watch this, you will not be disappointed. 

Grade: A-


“Kingdom” premieres Wednesday, October 8 at 9pm on DirecTV’s Audience Network. 

READ MORE: ‘Friday Night Lights’ and ‘Parenthood’ Creator Jason Katims on When It’s Time to Say Goodbye

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