Can we all take a minute to talk about the massively underappreciated American drama Kingdom? As of yet, I haven’t found a single person to share it with, which is an absolute travesty because it’s awesome.
The show arrived on Netflix for Brits during the early stages of the pandemic last year. Since I’m set on watching my way through the entire online catalogue of every film/TV series I can get my hands on while distancing and working from home, I’ve broadened my repertoire and literally resorted to watching any old crap. I’m ashamed to say that’s exactly what I thought this show would be: on the face of it, it looked like a corny series about some fighting club and Nick Jonas’ placement as a figure in the main cast didn’t inspire much confidence either (lest we forget the Disney channel days).
But you can only scroll past the same recommended thumbnails a number of times before you give in, so, I gave it a go.
Off the bat, I just want to provide a disclaimer: this is no Cobra Kai rodeo with glossed-to-perfection choreography, relentless one-liners and high-school pettiness. In contrast, Kingdom is a maelstrom of drugs, hookers and a lot of emotional arcs involving broken families and addiction. It’s a gritty, sweaty and ugly portrayal of MMA: long hours training, the implications of the profession on a fighter’s personal life, the trials of “making weight” and disciplined preparation for bouts with big guys that pack serious punches.
At the heart of the show are the Kulinas, a tight-knit family of fighters whose lives gravitate around the fighting ring like the moon does the earth. Their hub is the fictional gym Navy Street on Venice Beach, owned by Alvey the alpha, an ex-professional in the MMA world who now sits atop his perch as an established trainer for up-and-coming talent. Doting father and positive guru to faithful gym-goers, Alvey is the born-again ex-addict in recovery who speaks plainly of his past struggles and openly attends regular therapy sessions, as well as self-medicates with prescription drugs, to keep his mental health in check. His sons also have the fighting bug, but lead completely different lifestyles. There’s puritan Nate, the youngster who keeps his head down, says little and just gets on with what needs to be done. Then there’s Jay (Jonathan Tucker), Alvey’s eldest son, at times gentle and nurturing, he’s a party-going wild-card whose unpredictable antics give him an air of infamy in the industry.
They’re a loving collective, but also low-key salty due to Alvey’s past deplorable behaviour and its impact upon the family unit, most notably, their troubled mother who ended up walking out years prior. These underlying tensions are only further tested when the boat is rocked by the return of ex-prize fighter Ryan Wheeler, recently released from jail following a drugged up assault on his father. He comes back to Navy Street to find his ex-girlfriend is now Alvey’s fiancee and that an old dog can’t learn new tricks: his options for employment are limited with his rap sheet and he has a lot of work to do if he is to be taken seriously in the fighting world again.
Of course there’s a mixed set of emotions following Wheeler’s return and this is primarily the focus of season one, as the cast tease out the tangles of their frayed relationships. There’s high-octane fights in the ring and low-blows outside of it, but it’s a thoroughly entertaining spectacle and a easy-watch at that.
In my opinion, the show goes from strength to strength as the seasons progress (there’s only three, major outrage?!), impressively delivering a sweet balance between the brutality of big fights and mature, sometimes quite moving, scenes between a loyal bunch who are all struggling with their own personal battles.
My personal favourite find from this show is Tucker, who is an absolute scene-stealer as Jay. He’s a deadly weapon in the ring but also perhaps the most broken of them all, often bursting into impassioned speeches or hysterical tears when overwhelmed. But to be honest, the performances across the board are strong. Frank Grillo serves up a hungry portrayal of Alvey and has some brilliant moments that clearly evidence his capabilities as an actor, which is a nice revelation considering that his roles are generally typecast as minimally-speaking baddies in box office hits. Also, even Nick Jonas outdoes himself as both a serious actor and believable opponent in the ring (who’d have thought it).
Please, for the love of all that is holy in this world, give this show a watch. Particularly if, like me, your go-to movies since childhood have been the likes of the Rocky films, the Matrix trilogy, the Terminator and then the teen-angst phase of classics like Never Back Down. I could really do with somebody to rave about it with! And lets be real, we all know you’re just sat at home rewatching your comfort shows, anyway…