MMA-themed 'Kingdom' hits all the right spots

MMA-themed 'Kingdom' hits all the right spots
“Kingdom” on DirecTV doesn’t pull its punches when it comes to feelings and ideas as well as action. (Mark Davis / Getty Images)

As one perhaps genetically indisposed to enjoy sports in which people whomp the stuffing out of one another, I wouldn't expect to care much for a drama built around mixed martial arts, in which the whomping comes in more ways than usual. And yet here I am, about to write a good review of just such a show.

A new drama premiering Wednesday on DirecTV, "Kingdom" bumbles a bit at first; the first episode, especially, seems dangled as bait to the hormonal young men who not only make up much of the audience for MMA but whose attention networks compulsively seek.


There is the usual modicum of undressed female window-dressing. Each of the first three lines in the series contains a variation on the f-word, and before 90 seconds are up, there has been a violent, one-sided punch-out that only momentarily interferes with the morning run of Alvy Kulina (Frank Grillo), aging ex-fighter and now the proprietor of a financially struggling MMA gym in Venice, Calif. "Kingdom" itself is a macho rewrite of the series' original title, "Navy St.," after the name of the gym.

As is often the case, the thing being criticized is also the thing being marketed. The structure of the show allows flawed good guys to beat the tar out of unmitigated bad ones, satisfying that urge, should you happen to have it. Some do.

It's almost as if, like its testosterone-fueled fighters, the show loses its mind every once in a while and just has to punch something, and punch it and punch it and punch it. Between these attacks, however, it relaxes into well-written scenes in which the wounded characters express ideas and feelings other than rage. The violence becomes less gratuitous and, therefore, more distressing — indeed, you may root for them not to fight, even professionally, even as the show pushes you toward the moment when they will.

"Maybe you've just got used to a certain level of pain," Nate's physical therapist will tell him, saying more than she knows.

Creator Byron Balasco ("Detroit 1-8-7") has made not so much a sports story as a study of dysfunctional males and their curious bonds. It feels a bit like "Sons of Anarchy" in that regard, though somewhat less idealized — an extended-family drama not wholly dependent on the setting.

Filling out the main cast are Alvy's younger son Nate (Nick Jonas, of the famous Brothers, and very good), serious and sober; older son Jay (Jonathan Tucker), not sober, but more serious, and like Nate, sweeter than he seems. Just out of prison after four years is former fighting star Ryan Wheeler (Matt Lauria), who represents both the possible salvation of the gym and the possible ruination of Alvy's relationship with Ryan's ex-fiancée, Lisa (Kiele Sanchez), the series' designated strong female lead.

Eventually she will be joined by Joanna Going as Jay and Nate's mother, Christina (not strong but fully conceived). Some of the arrangements seem too mathematical at first, but all gain nuance with time.

Follow me on Twitter: @LATimesTVLloyd



Where: DirecTV

When: 6 p.m. Wednesday

Rating: Not rated