In the third episode of “Kingdom,” DirecTV's new drama series set in the world of mixed martial arts, one of the main characters gives an impromptu boxing lesson to his often-bullied roommate. When the roommate is reluctant to punch him in the face, our hero cheerfully insists, “Look, I get punched in the face for a living. This is not going to hurt me.”
This is the most important thing to note about the men of “Kingdom,” whether their storylines directly involve MMA or not. In a tumultuous world, being hit, and hitting back, is the one constant in their lives – and not just when they're in the cage. When a problem presents itself, their first, second and third impulse is to clench their fists and find a way to punch back.
Created by Byron Belasco, “Kingdom” is DirecTV's latest attempt to use its Audience Network (the first episode debuts there tonight at 9) to bring together the customers who subscribe for the sports packages and those who come for the entertainment options. It stars Frank Grillo as Alvey Kulina, a retired MMA legend running a barely-solvent Venice gym with the help of second wife Lisa (Kiele Sanchez). He has two sons who have tried at different times to follow in his footsteps: talented junkie and all-around screw-up Jay (Jonathan Tucker) and Nate (Nick Jonas), a quiet type attracting as much attention from promoters for his face as for his skill inside the cage. Complicating Alvey's personal life but potentially enhancing his gym: Ryan Wheeler (Matt Lauria), a former golden boy of the sport – and Lisa's ex-fiance – just out of prison and looking to rebuild his life and career.
Among the many narratives for why MMA overtook boxing in popularity is the notion that there's more action, and a more varied style of fighting, than what the sweet science has to offer. “Kingdom” tries to adopt that ethos for itself, to varying degrees of success. While it's primarily about the success and failure of the gym and the fighters who train there, it's also a family drama, and it deals with drugs and the kinds of violence that will land you inside a very different kind of cage run by the representatives of local law-enforcement.
It's a busy show, often too busy – the obvious comparison point feels less “Lights Out” (RIP) than perhaps to the earliest, least hyperbolic days of “Sons of Anarchy” – but one that's anchored by a group of strong performances.
Chief among those comes from Grillo, a 50something Hey It's That Guy who seems to finally be having his moment, as one of the more memorable villains in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” as the lead in “The Purge: Anarchy,” and now this. “Kingdom” isn't his first dalliance with MMA drama, as he was one of the best parts of Gavin O'Connor's underseen “Warrior,” where he played Joel Edgerton's focused but thoughtful trainer. (He's the one who gives the “You don't knock him out, you don't have a home” speech before that movie's most inspiring moment.) He's a classical Hollywood leading man in a business that hasn't had much use for the product of late (see also Jon Hamm's pre-“Mad Men” obscurity), and the mileage he's had to put on to get to this point adds a lot to the role. He's still in incredible shape – all four male leads look like they haven't so much as looked at a carb, let alone eaten one, since the first Bush presidency – but he's lined and weary, and comes across as every bit the past-his-prime superhero that the character is supposed to be.
“Starting to feel like I'm a big fuckin' joke,” he laments at one point. “Like I'm a revival act – that everything I've done that's worth a shit, it's already happened.”
Lauria has played a violent, damaged character before on “Parenthood,” and Tucker has lots of experience playing the kind of dangerous wild card that Jay represents, and both are good matches with Grillo(*). Nick Jonas is still pretty new to acting, and Belasco wisely doesn't ask too much from him; Nate is a strong-but-silent type, who seems content to exist in the shadow of his famous father and his loud brother, and Jonas does just fine with that. This is an overwhelmingly male world, but Sanchez makes Lisa feel like more than the buzzkill wife; when she objects to something Alvey or one of her stepsons is doing, the show's sympathies are always with her.
(*) Tucker also played an Amber love interest on “Parenthood,” and it's funny to imagine this show as a mirror universe version where being dumped by Amber sends both men to the world of MMA to pound out their sorrows. Also, the fourth episode has Lauria sharing a scene with an actor that will unsettle and/or amuse anyone who recalls their work together in the Katims-verse.
In the four episodes I've seen, Belasco tries spinning too many plates, particularly as different Kulina men drift over into a more criminal world. (A subplot involving Jay and Nate's mom is the most extraneous at this stage.) But the performances are good, and the show offers an interesting glimpse of a world that hasn't been dramatized all that often, despite the sport's popularity. It's not a great show, but it's a solid one that, like the various fighters in Alvey's stable, has the potential to knock you out if it can put everything together.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org