Before DirecTV’s Kingdom, I knew two things about MMA: that it stood for Mixed Martial Arts, and that the few friends of mine that call themselves fans – all two and a half of them – describe it as “real wrestling, not like that WWE you and your brother are so fond of.” Now, I dunno about that last bit, but here’s a couple other things I learned from watching the first two episodes of Kingdom: DirecTV has original programming (who knew?!), Nick Jonas can, surprisingly enough, act, and MMA seems really really violent and involves a lot of gratuitous male nudity, which is of course right up my alley.
Despite the MMA-heavy backdrop, Kingdom is, at heart, a family drama. The show centers on Alvey Kulina (Frank Grillo AKA that one guy Sam Wilson told to shut the hell up in The Winter Soldier) and his attempts to keep his MMA gym, Navy St., afloat. He’s helped and/or hindered by his supportive girlfriend and gym manager, Lisa (Kiele Sanchez), his youngest son and up-and-coming MMA fighter Nate (Nick Jonas), and his oldest son, an unreliable drugged out ex-fighter named Jay (Jonathan Tucker). Together they make a family – one that’s about to be complicated when Lisa’s old flame and Alvey’s former protégé Ryan Wheeler (Matt Lauria of Friday Night Lights) shows up at the gym after his release from prison.
Alvey has a plan to get Wheeler working for him again, because apparently he used to be some kind of superstar before getting thrown in jail. Jay, too, has a plan to start fighting again in his father’s old gym. Meanwhile Nate just wants to win his big fight, Wheeler is reluctant to even step back in the ring again, and poor Lisa just wants everyone to please start making money already before they’re all bankrupt, preferably without the help of her “diva” ex-boyfriend.
The sporadic bits of humor – like Alvey angrily eating a salad after an argument with his son – lighten up the seriousness with the characters’ various issues, the brutality of the fights, and the mundanity of the many many training montages. The cast give subdued but good performances, working off easy chemistry with one another to build believable relationships.
The amount of testosterone in the show is a bit much – there’s basically only one woman in the two episodes I’ve seen so far, and as much as I like her (and I like her a lot), not only is she shuffled into the “girlfriend” role, there’s also the possibility of a love triangle happening there. The rest of the women in the episodes are sex workers, half-naked hookups, or random extras working out in the background of a scene in the gym. Promos for the rest of the season show that Jay and Nate’s estranged mother might be playing a bigger role in future episodes, and the investor that’s interested in Navy St., Allison Castro, keeps popping up, so hopefully things will continue to even out as the season progresses.
All in all, for a show centered on a sport that I have zero interest in, I’m already pretty damn invested in Kingdom.