Hanging the title of "the best show you're not watching" on the MMA-themed family drama Kingdom is not another painful attempt to bait readers for clicks. The series, which was renewed for Season 3 on Thursday, airs on AT&T's Audience Network, which is only available to AT&T and DirecTV subscribers, a number that as of April 2016 stands at just 25.3 million viewers.
Right away that means the show's potential viewing audience is drastically more limited than that of programs of similar caliber, airing on broadcast or basic cable networks like AMC or FX. But make no mistake, Kingdom is a rich, thoughtful drama about the complicated nature of family, the raw and tiring fight for glory, and the never-ending battle of addiction. And it's equally deserving of the attention paid to programs airing on more accessible networks. It's the type of program that's actually worth seeking out during this time of so-called Peak TV.
Set in Southern California against the blood- and sweat-soaked backdrop of mixed martial arts, the series stars Frank Grillo (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) as Alvey Kulina, a former champion fighter who now runs Navy St., a gym where he trains current fighters, including his sons Jay (series standout Jonathan Tucker) and Nate (Nick Jonas) and former champion Ryan Wheeler (Matt Lauria), who at the start of the series has just reentered the outside world after serving a prison sentence.
Similar to AT&T's limited subscriber base, the MMA setting is also an uphill battle for the series' ability to attract fans. The question of whether one must possess intimate knowledge of the sport, or even be a casual fan, is a common one that calls to mind the "I don't like football" problem that plagued the beloved and heartfelt Friday Night Lights (a series that was coincidentally saved from cancellation through a deal with DirecTV after it struggled to find an audience on NBC).
But Kingdom is about MMA the way FNL was about the gridiron, which is to say that the sport around which the characters' lives revolve is an integral part of who they are — Jay and Nate grew up in the world of MMA, making it the only life they've known, while Ryan's training offers something resembling purpose — but as football was to Friday Night Lights,MMA is also simply the adrenaline-fueled vehicle through which Kingdom has chosen to tell its complex larger story.
Tucker, in particular, is explosive as Jay, a wild and volatile but incredibly gifted fighter whose instability and unreliability have led to him being written off and labeled a wasted talent, but who fights his way to the top over the course of the first and second seasons. Jay's reckless actions and inability to control his emotions kept him out of the cage and weakened his relationship with his father, but his wide-eyed bravado occasionally slips away away to reveal a previously unrealized emotional depth, without ever fully disappearing. Behind the drugs and the partying is a sensitive man desperate to save his own drug-addicted mother, take care of his younger brother, and even rebuild what he can of his broken home life.
Last year, when his character was involved in an extended storyline about cutting weight for an upcoming fight, Tucker famously cut his own weight to add authenticity to a story that already requires its actors to leave it all on the field. Tucker is giving what is, at least at the moment, the performance of a lifetime. But it's entirely possible that Jay Kulina will eventually be just another in a long list of defining roles for the actor, who somehow effortlessly manages to disappear into each and every character he takes on.
But although Tucker has definitely proven to be a consistent highlight for Kingdom, it's not as if the rest of the show's cast members are sitting on their hands or getting off easy. From the battle of wills that drives much of the action, to the expert training and outstanding fight choreography, the cast and crew of Kingdom are giving it their all, and it clearly shows. They're at the top of their games both physically and professionally, bringing both realism and surprising depth to creator Byron Balasco's gritty world.
Viewers may recognize Grillo from his recent role as Brock Rumlow, a.k.a. Crossbones, in Marvel's Captain America films, but on Kingdom he doesn't have to fight government-created super-soldiers for the spotlight. Here Grillo stands out as the family patriarch who packs a powerful punch as father and coach. Like the young men he trains, Alvey is far from perfect. However, for all of his faults — he can be bad-tempered and doesn't always make the best decisions when presented with obstacles — he also never stops trying, never stops fighting for the people he cares about. He's the guy everyone wants to have in their corner.
Lauria, who appeared as an unstable veteran on NBC's Parenthood (and as a member of the East Dillon Lions on Friday Night Lights) prior to starring in Kingdom, is equally impressive as Ryan, another fighter whose personal demons have tripped him up in ways both big and small. Like Jay, Ryan — who served time in prison for his role in an altercation that left his father paralyzed — has returned to the sport after years away and resumed training with Alvey to chase the dream of recapturing his title. It hasn't been easy, as the return to the outside world meant facing the loved ones he hurt and finding a healthy way to deal with his anger while stepping back into a world fueled by emotion and adrenaline.
A little more quiet but just as captivating is Jonas, who completely sheds his former boy band persona in a subdued and measured performance as Nate. A promising younger fighter, Nate has struggled to come back from multiple injuries while battling, like everyone else in Kingdom, his own inner demons that, at times, threaten to overwhelm him.
Perhaps more impressive than the deep bench of good-looking men, though, are the show's multi-dimensional heroines, who cut through the blanket of testosterone to prove that Kingdom isn't just a man's game.
Joanna Going, who stars as Jay and Nate's mother Christina, is remarkable as a character who fights to remain sober in a world that constantly presents her with temptation. She's also struggling to rebuild relationships that have been damaged both by her actions and by Alvey's — who wasn't exactly winning Father of the Year awards in her absence, as his own issues threatened to get in his way.
Elsewhere, Kiele Sanchez is rock steady as Lisa Prince, Ryan's former fiancée and Alvey's former live-in girlfriend and business partner, who frequently acts as the lone voice of reason in a world in which violence is common and a bomb could go off at any moment. And finally, Natalie Martinez, a Season 2 addition, is making strides as Alicia Mendez, a female fighter who has raw talent in a male-dominated sport and is only just now figuring out how to harness it.
All together, these jagged and damaged individual pieces assemble to form an incredibly satisfying picture about family and loyalty, love and loss. But like its characters, Kingdom routinely defies expectations, either because viewers simply don't know what to expect or because the target is always moving.
When Ryan and Jay face off in a title fight in the second half of Season 2, for instance, it's not immediately clear who the favorite is, or who the audience is even supposed to root for in the battle of brother against brother. But no matter what obstacles are present, no matter which way the winds of fortune blow, one thing is absolutely clear: There are numerous programs fighting for your attention, and Kingdom is one of the few putting on a show that's worth the price of admission.
Kingdom airs Wednesdays at 9/8c on Audience Network.