Now this is hard-hitting television.
Kingdom, DirecTV's new original series about the brutal world of mixed martial arts, goes for a solid shot to the gut with its artsy mix of blood, sweat, and Shakespearean themes. Think of it as Sons of Anarchy in a steel cage. Or King Lear with headlocks.
"When you're dealing with people fighting to survive in a pretty raw, intense world, those themes of loyalty and family come up again and again," says series creator and executive producer Byron Balasco (Detroit 1-8-7). The idea of a dynastic drama within the universe of a blood sport had been sitting with Balasco for years before MMA was embraced by the masses. The rise of the UFC and shows like The Ultimate Fighter suggested that it was finally time to pitch his script to Endemol, the studio behind Ripper Street, Hell on Wheels, and The Fall.
"They really understood what I was trying to do and took it to DirecTV, who were great about setting it up so that I would have creative control," continues Balasco. "I loved that they were ready to go straight to 10 episodes instead of doing a pilot. That really frees you up to take your time to tell the story."
Starring Captain America: The Winter Soldier's Frank Grillo (who previously starred in the MMA flick Warrior) as faded fighter-turned-gym owner Alvey Kulina, Kingdom's opener sets the stage for a battle royale over Alvey's financial future and the very lives of those who pound their hearts out at his Navy Street facility in Venice, California. "Alvey is a guy who needs to stay relevant, and the only way to do that is to coach," says Grillo, who has trained in mixed martial arts for much of his life. "But the only way to be a great coach is to get great fighters — and Alvey hasn't had any greats. Yet."
A big yet, and one that's going to get tangled up in family ties like so many limbs at an actual MMA match. Alvey's former star protégé Ryan (an intense Matt Lauria of Friday Night Lights), fresh off a four-year prison stint for assault, is sober and looking for a return to the sport — as well as a possible reunion with his ex-fiancée, Lisa (Kiele Sanchez), who's now dating Alvey. In addition to that triangle, Alvey has his battered, calloused hands full with a pair of pugilistic offspring — nihilistic burnout Jay (Jonathan Tucker) and Nate, a silently broken up-and-comer facing his first bout, heartbreakingly played by Nick Jonas. Yes, that Nick Jonas.
"I think some of the success I had in the earlier stages of my career has limited me and caused some bias," says the former boy bander, who's playing his most dramatic role to date. "So I was thankful that DirecTV, Endemol, and Byron all felt like my audition was strong enough. I told them that I would work harder than anybody, because, in a lot of ways, this is like starting over."
"I didn't know him," admits Grillo, who remembers his agent calling to say that Jonas was one of the actors up for the pivotal part. "I said, 'Dude, it ain't gonna happen.' Cut to 30 guys coming in for the role, including Nick, and he was the best. Hands down."
He needed to be. Jonas, Tucker, and Lauria had to complete a ton of heavy lifting to nail the animalistic physicality of alpha males who have spent their lives in a gym. Working with MMA legend Greg Jackson, a consultant on the show, the actors endured a grueling training camp before the daily grind of on-set sessions with fight choreographer and MMA adviser Joe "Daddy" Stevenson. "They would go out to his gym and train every day for weeks," says Balasco. "And there was constant training as filming went on. These guys immersed themselves in it." The rigorous prep packed 15 pounds of muscle onto Jonas and left Tucker with a cartilage tear of the ribs, but it also served to secure a brotherly bond among the trio, which helped when it came time to establish one of the key relationships on the show: that between junkie Jay and sober Ryan, friends and addicts at various stages of recovery. "Jay is so vital to my character, because if Ryan can help Jay get past his struggles, that means Ryan can help himself," says Lauria.
From the looks of the pilot, it's doubtful that Jay is headed anywhere but down for the count, though Tucker feels that his lovable loser may score a win once he sees his old friend living clean. "Jay is beginning to realize that he can only apologize so much," the actor says. "He has to accept responsibility for what he's been doing, and Ryan helps him find that."
How long any of these gladiators can keep fighting their demons ultimately depends on how they roll with a pair of punches thrown late in the premiere, one of which involves the arrival of a strung-out hooker (Joanna Going) with ties to the Kulina men. "She becomes a central character who shakes everything up," says Grillo. "Her presence will throw everything off." Including, we suspect, the gloves.
Kingdom premieres Wednesday, Oct. 8 at 9/8c on DirecTV's Audience Network.