“I did a film about MMA called ‘Warrior,'” Grillo said. “Lionsgate put a picture of an unknown Tom Hardy and an unknown Joel Edgerton on a fight poster, and that was their marketing campaign. That was six years ago. MMA was still trying to get into the mainstream. Nobody knew these guys. That was a movie that I think could’ve went — I mean, Nolte got [Oscar] nominated!”
Grillo has a business degree from New York University and recently started a production company with director Joe Carnahan, who worked with Grillo on “The Grey.” He’s tracked the show’s rollout since “Kingdom” premiered in 2014 and, while he doesn’t “get involved with the politics of Endemol and DirecTV” and values their support, some business decisions frustrated Grillo and others on the “Kingdom” team.
“It’s kind of been a thorn in all of our sides for a long time,” Grillo said. “If the business were a meritocracy, I think this show would be mentioned with all the other shows that get the critical recognition for writing, directing — certainly for acting. And it’s a little discouraging. I see other, smaller or fledgling networks that do get their shows out there using secondary markets like Netflix and iTunes and stuff. We’re not on those. […] For whatever reason, they don’t want us out. I think DirecTV wants to create their own secondary market, and I think it’s hurt us.”
Internationally, Endemol Shine International sold “Kingdom” across 145 countries including the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Canada, Australia, and numerous Latin America and Asian territories. In the United States, seasons were made available on DVD and still are, but, as Grillo said, they’re not streaming on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, or even available for purchase on iTunes.
However, those who see “Kingdom” invest in it. Critics praised the first season, drawing comparisons to “Rocky” and “Friday Night Lights.” Those who weren’t fully sold from the start came around by the end.
David Wiegand of the San Francisco Chronicle said Season 1 was “watchable” in his mixed review, but he fell harder for a “superb” Season 2, and compared Season 3 to “great fight films” like “Raging Bull” and “Somebody Up There Likes Me.” Meanwhile, Kyle Anderson of Entertainment Weekly gave Season 1 its best review (well, tied for the best), and the publication kept pushing “Kingdom” with fan-favorite episode reviews from Samantha Highfill all the way through its final season.
However, as evidenced by Metacritic and RottenTomatoes, the number of reviews dwindled from year to year, including the split 20-episode second season. An unfortunate side effect of the peak-TV era is that not all critics have time to review every season of every series (a gargantuan task even 20 years ago). They have to serve their readers; and “Kingdom” wasn’t a highly rated show, which likely meant it was passed over by critics short on time.
The family drama elicits familial levels of passion, but no one conveys the level of love and admiration for this series like Grillo’s co-star, Jonathan Tucker. As Jay Kulina, Alvey’s oldest and wildest son, Tucker is known for his commitment to this role, often sending texts and e-mails to Balasco and the series’ directors, offering ideas for Jay’s dialogue, behavior, or both.
“For this show and this character, it’s critical to me that [Jay] is walked to the edge frequently, that he’s held underwater every season,” Tucker said, sitting on a giant tire used for training in the on-set gym. “The responsibility of the characters is given to the actors. There’s nothing that’s off limits [in terms of] nudity, nor drug use that’s forbidden, so let’s open up and accelerate it.”
Tucker felt particularly beholden to the real-life fighters, as did the creator and each actor. “Kingdom” isn’t based on any individual, but it’s always aimed to be as authentic as possible to the MMA community.
“Literally, three years ago, if you and I were at a cocktail party and you said to me you work in MMA or it was part of your world or you just watched it, I would’ve immediately thought you were part of this depraved, cockfighting-for-humans bloodsport, the lowest of the low. And I would’ve written you off like that,” said Tucker, snapping his fingers.
“Whether people watch it or not because of MMA, I can’t tell you,” Tucker said. “But it does annoy me to no end when I sit down at a dinner party and hear a supercilious response to MMA. And, of course, the irony is that was me three years ago.”
Three years later, it’s hard for Tucker to say goodbye to Jay. In a recent interview, he compared the series’ unexpected cancellation to a “bad breakup,” in that you don’t know why it’s over. It just is.
Continue reading for Byron Balasco’s optimistic perspective on the fight that ends, but rages on.