Farewell, ‘Kingdom’: The Best TV Show You Probably Never Heard Of

© 2017 Trish Causey.

The stellar three-season MMA-drama “Kingdom” has ended, not with a bang, but with a whimper. Filled with many more highs than lows, the show was canceled too soon, leaving the numerous subplot storylines either dangling unfinished or succumbing to sophomoric resolutions, while the brilliant ensemble cast was kicked to the curb.

“Kingdom” centers around Alvey Kulina, a former professional boxer and MMA fighter who now runs a gym and trains younger fighters, specifically his two sons as well as ex-con Ryan. Also on board to keep things running at Navy St. Gym is Lisa, Ryan’s former girlfriend who began a relationship with Alvey when Ryan went to prison. In the midst of that melodrama are the sons Jay and Nate, brothers who have an amazingly strong bond even as Nate is the favored son to Alvey, leaving poor Jay estranged and often playing third fiddle behind Ryan for Alvey’s attention. Enter stage-left, Alvey’s (ex)wife Christina re-emerges to further complicate their lives as a wife and mother turned drug addict and prostitute, having been introduced to injectibles by Alvey himself years ago.

Like a classic Greek tragedy, “Kingdom” overflowed with testosterone, drunken revelry, gratuitous sex, plenty of violence, and the occasional murder, with the added 21st-century vices of illegal drugs and commercial sports to keep it interesting. The few areas where the show needed improvement fell squarely on the heads of the showrunner, the writers, and anyone else involved in creating the basic premise of the show.

The central character Alvey, that was played very well by Frank Grillo, is based on a male archetype that has simply been overdone at this point: a middle-aged man looking back on his life, unable to connect emotionally to those around him, using sex and alcohol to numb the physical and emotional pains he cannot deal with otherwise, while his pathetic attempts to reconcile the past and the present frequently elicit a violent lashing-out at those who want to love him. Unfortunately, these typical tropes tend to be book-ended by Pacino-wannabe monologues as Alvey ponders his Everyman journey into the depths of his personal hell, a man in full-tilt, existential-crisis mode giving an account of his actions as he searches for his life’s meaning.

A primary example of the show’s questionable storylines occurs in Season 2 when Alvey, a professional MMA-fighter, for some reason thinks he needs a gun to protect himself — since kicking grown men’s asses in the cage every day obviously is not enough self-defense protection. After a night of carousing and alcohol, Alvey shoots and kills a friend of his, further sending Alvey into destructive behaviour patterns that he tries to talk through with an off-screen confessor. This mid-life crisis male archetype is not new; it is tired and languishing in the realm of caricature — as if the entirety of Western history is not littered with the consequences of insecure, emotionally-stunted ammosexual men using violence to solve their problems and making life miserable for everyone around them.

This Raging-Bull-with-a-therapist scenario may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but it broke absolutely no new ground artistically. The best parts of “Kingdom” sprouted up in all of the supporting characters around Alvey whose storylines (somehow) became infinitely more interesting than his and made each episode highly anticipated. (Spoiler: this is never good for a main character.)

Kingdom DVD Seasons 1 & 2

Ryan, played by Matt Lauria, is a fighter who came from a troubled home and was involved with Lisa before going to prison. Ryan tends to react differently than you would expect a fighter with a violent past to behave, often delivering his responses with a downplayed, hard-earned wisdom. This makes his occasional violent outbursts all the more potent and his gentle scenes with Keith and his father even more poignant.

Lisa, played by Kiele Sanchez, is a tough woman who demands respect in the macho world of male-dominated sports. Her quest for respect in the business sees her transition into managing fighters, and in Season 2, she takes under her wing a female fighter new to Navy St. Throughout that season, I wished for more meat to the storyline of women in competitive sports, and the final season saw this come to fruition, sans female fighters. Overall, I wish more had been written about women in boxing and MMA, but at least, this was a start.

As prodigal-mom and ex-wife Christina, Joanna Going does some of the best hooker/druggie acting I have ever seen. When she makes her initial entrance and disrupts the already tenuous environment of Alvey et al., Going is spot-on in her portrayal of an addict trying to make things right with her sons and Alvey while embarking upon the road to recovery. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, you might think Central Casting held auditions for the role of Christina in the middle of L.A.’s most drug-addled slums. From her physical appearance — aided by hair, makeup, and wardrobe — to her careful attention to the minutia of an addict’s body language, Going is superb as Christina.

Without a doubt, the best performance among an ensemble of great performances was delivered by Jonathan Tucker, formerly of “Parenthood” and numerous film and television roles. As the odd-man out in his own family, Tucker played Jay Kulina with 110% commitment to the passion and the crazy that dwelled within the character. High on drugs in one scene, then painfully aware of his diminished position in the next, Tucker made Jay’s extremes of emotion and physicality seem effortless, when another actor may have played them as bi-polar whims with no root in years of familial relationship trauma compounded by substance abuse.

Tucker’s uncanny ability to express hurt, want, loss, and vulnerability were most evident in his scenes with Jay’s mother (Joanna Going). Tucker’s intensely visceral performance at times made the scenes almost uncomfortable to watch with his blatant sensitivity and empathetic openness, lending a near-Oedipal adoration to an already complicated narrative. The flip-side of this is Jay’s relationship with Alvey, in which each conversation ends with Jay teetering between lashing out or skulking away. Tucker keeps you guessing as to how Jay will react to any given stimulus at any given moment. Tucker played every scene to the hilt, leaving it all on the proverbial stage every single time.

Coming in a close second to Tucker in performances-that-draw-you-in is Paul Walter Hauser as the mentally-troubled yet complex Keith. With some of the best lines, Keith is not a character you are supposed to root for. From Season 1, Keith is a killer, and throughout Season 2, he becomes increasingly unhinged as Ryan becomes entangled with a female fighter. Keith is demanding in a passive-aggressive way, self-defeatist yet loyal to the end for Ryan. The dry-humour for the scenes between Ryan and Keith is some of the funniest writing since “Deadwood”, though not nearly as loquaciously Shakespearean. What makes these scenes work, aside from the less-is-more dialogue, is the delivery — especially the pauses between lines as the totality of whatever ridiculous thing Keith has said sinks in and Ryan tries to respond but on a level Keith can understand. I found myself looking forward to these scenes way too much, and I was always rewarded as Ryan and Keith brought needed — though droll — levity to balance the chaotic intensity everywhere else in the show.

Nick Jonas holds his own amongst the rest of the cast, playing beloved son Nate, who is an up-and-coming fighter and the favored son to Alvey. Nate desperately tries to hide from Alvey the fact that he’s gay, and here, the writers made a mistake in the consistency of character. Nate is the golden boy who can do no wrong; Jay is the fuck-up. If Alvey is going to hate a son for being gay, it would be Jay. Alvey has never shown anything but love toward Nate, with father’s pride spilling over in every scene. Had the writers written more into the character of Alvey as a homophobic or religious nut from the beginning, Nate’s fear would have been more believable. As it was, the writers waited until Season 3 to bring in the fire-and-brimstone Roman Catholic overtones to Alvey’s character. Even then, the loving, solid relationship between Alvey and Nate was already too established for Catholic fear-mongering to actually be believable. However, the end of Season 3 saw all of this come to a head in a manner that was a total cop-out to the characters and the story the writers had spent three seasons building.

All in all, “Kingdom” is most definitely worth watching, even if you are not into boxing or MMA — as I surely am not. The stories of the characters individually and collectively explore many twists and turns, too many to relate here. Suffice to say, I found myself drawn in and caring deeply for the characters time and time again, while being blown away by the actors’ performances. Writing quibbles aside, “Kingdom” should be on your to-watch list, especially if you need a break from binge-watching “House of Cards” or “Game of Thrones” — or if you’re up for an audition for a drug addict or emotionally-vulnerable macho man. If you like borderline tragic works, “Kingdom” will enthrall you. And who knows — maybe some other outlet will bring the show back for another incarnation of dysfunctional souls just trying to survive being related and succeeding in a highly competitive sport.