In the first few episodes of “Kingdom” Season 3, the excellent final season of Audience Network’s flagship drama, there are moments that are hard to watch. No, it’s not the cage-fighting, where grown men pummel each other with unsparing precision. Those are obviously painful, but just as obviously essential to the Venice-set MMA series.
As Alvey (Frank Grillo) and his gym of fighters work toward professional and personal glory, the difficult scenes sneak up in subtle asides that speak to the nuance of a great human drama. It’s just a word or two, really, fit within scenes geared toward something else entirely. They’re trigger words that make progressive-minded TV fans’ hair stand up; their guts turn; their minds uncomfortably shift as they’re reminded that the world they’re watching has its own set of rules.
“Kingdom” has always done an extraordinary job of portraying the specifics of a tight-knit community you have to earn your way into, and it’s not like the people within are easy to love. They’re hard-edged, stubborn, exorbitantly macho men made fascinating by how often life brings them to their knees. Whether they’re beating someone bloody or going out on the town, there’s a code among fighters — and a complicated one at that.
The show’s creator, Byron Balasco, has been studying this group with a sociologist’s eye for humanity in every jab, training session, and downed whiskey shot. What does this choice, this attitude, this lifestyle, say about the person in the camera’s sights? In “Kingdom,” it says quite a bit, and we’ve come know and love these characters for exactly who they are.
Which is why when you hear one of the more sensitive leading men say “no homo” before inviting his male friend out for a drink, it’s a little disconcerting. It’s more troubling when the series lead casually insults his friend by saying, “You’re so gay.” These are small moments, and they pass by the same way they do in real life: Anyone uncomfortable tries to forget about it as quickly as it was said, and anyone else laughs along with the fellas.
But these homophobic comments aren’t casually implemented in the script. They’re not treated casually by the series. “Kingdom” is carefully crafting a world in which grown men who wrestle around with each other in their underwear are deeply uncomfortable with the gay community. And they’re about to learn that one of their own is gay.
Nate Kulina, played by Nick Jonas, was outed near the end of Season 2, but we’ve known his sexuality for some time. He’s tried to keep it secret, first from himself and then from his family, because he’s aware of the profession’s intolerance for gay fighters. “Kingdom” has done a beautiful job of addressing his complicated emotions over 30 episodes, and we’ve watched Nate struggle with accepting who he is in a world that rejects it, just as we’ve seen him establish a unique identity outside of “the gay MMA fighter.”
When he came out to his brother, Jay (Jonathan Tucker), his open-minded, wildly emotional fellow fighter reacted well. But we can’t expect the same from the rest of the community, and Balasco is oh-so-carefully prepping us for what’s to come. It’s not that he’s readily defending one side or the other. It’s an honest depiction of a challenging situation, one we’ve seen mirrored throughout the real-life sports world, and “Kingdom” — like it always does — has its heart in the right place.
Through five episodes, this storyline is far from the most prominent. Arguably, it’s not even Nate’s primary story arc for the season. But how this careful shading colors what’s to come illustrates how authentically the entire series moves from plot point to plot point. “Kingdom” feels genuine, and it’s earned that attribute from turning minor moments into major ones — which is exactly what I expect to see happen with Nate.
Balasco and his cast have built a series that demands more attention than it’s likely to receive, being on a network only accessible to DirecTV subscribers. This has always been the case, but in its final season — a premature ending, to be sure — the series’ compassion for its characters is what I’ll remember the most. These characters feel like they’re still at the start of their journey. We want more time with them, which is one of the highest compliments I can think to give a television show on its way out.
“Kingdom” Season 3 premieres Wednesday, May 31 at 8 p.m. on Audience Network and streaming via DirecTV NOW.