20 years ago, if you asked someone what “MMA” was, they’d probably recommend you talk to a doctor. Today, though, Mixed Martial Arts has become something of a phenomenon. February’s UFC London event at The O2 Arena (covered on BBC Three) sold out within 27 minutes of going on sale, while MMA artists such as Gina Carano have become a familiar sight in action blockbusters. Even Tom Hardy starred alongside Joel Edgerton in MMA drama Warrior, which bagged an Oscar nomination back in 2012.
Warrior has a lot in common with Kingdom, which premieres in the UK on Virgin Media’s on-demand service. Both feature believably brutal fight scenes, boast compelling casts and, underneath their sweaty, macho exteriors, lie deceptively accessible, engrossing dramas about family.
The clan in question? That would be The Kulinas, headed up by Alvey, who owns the Navy Street gym in Venice, California. The bills are mounting up and his struggle to build a successful team of fighters is hard-going, but those are the least of his worries, thanks to the rest of the Kulina clan. There’s Nate, the younger son and prize competitor, who needs motivating and the support of his older brother, Jay. Jay, however, is a drug-taking, party-loving troublemaker, who’s far from setting a good example. And, if that wasn’t enough, former champ Ryan Wheeler (Matt Lauria) has just got out of prison and Alvey’s keen to get him back in the ring – presuming he can conquer his anger management issues and not rekindle the relationship he once had with Alvey’s wife, Lisa (Kiele Sanchez).
It might sound like a bundle of cliches (and that’s because it is), but the secret to Kingdom’s success is that it grapples with each trope individually – and treats them with respect. Friday Night Lights’ Lauria gets a chance to show off his rage problems, but also builds rapport with both Alvey and Lisa, making him a convincing cause for the gym owner to champion. Justified’s Jonathan Tucker, meanwhile, brings depth to his fun-loving man-child, who manages to be annoyingly reckless and irresponsible yet also serious about helping out Nate, not to mention getting his own MMA game back into shape.
A lot of audiences’ eyes, though, will be on Nick Jonas, of the Jonas Brothers, and he doesn’t disappoint, both in terms of eye candy and acting ability. He puts his boy band image far behind him as Nate, a role that turns out to be mostly physical – his earnest fighter is as silent as he is strong, a fact that allows him to act without having to ‘act’, while also making the most of his impressive physique.
Together, they weave a tale about loyalty and blood, themes that are far from novel in the TV world. Compared to Virgin’s previous VOD exclusive, Ash vs Evil Dead, Kingdom is not as distinctive, especially at a time when there are so many shows competing for your attention. But one thing is relatively rare and that’s creator Byron Balasco’s commitment to each member of his ensemble; in the family gym, everyone and every narrative is introduced as equally important.
It’s an approach that places a lot of trust on the shoulders of the cast, but they rise to the challenge. At the heart of the programme, Frank Grillo makes for a fantastic father figure, with more subtlety to his stern presence than one might expect from a fist-punching patriarch. He repeatedly asks his fighters for another five minutes in the ring, as blows hail down upon them, or his family to give him 30 seconds mid-argument, a recurring habit that makes him more likeable and vulnerable than he could be in other hands.
Equally strong is his wife, Lisa, who, we swiftly realise, is the one with the trousers on in their relationship: she deals with investors, instructs employees and makes sure the business is running smoothly, all things that make Alvey’s standing around by the ring almost seem trivial.
But nothing is trivial in Kingdom – the mood is always turned up to intense. MMA veteran Joe Stevenson trained the cast and is also the show’s fight choreographer, ensuring that the violence we do see feels blisteringly accurate. Tempers run just as high out of the ring – the first family dinner scene we see explodes almost immediately into loud shouting – but Balasco proves in these first two episodes that he can use that aggression to develop and express his characters, not just for pummelling them like meat bags; for Jay and Nate, sparring is a brotherly act of bonding, while in between their day-to-duties, wrestling becomes a giggling form of flirting between their parents, a cute touch that ties the couple and the wider world together – with its scuzzy sets and low-key contests, Kingdom’s realistic world-building is to MMA what Empire is to the music industry.
All of these fine qualities combine to form a promising, if hardly ground-breaking, piece of television. For MMA fans, this will be an entertaining exploration of what goes into the sport behind-the-scenes, but it’s testament to Kingdom’s quality that it will also prove absorbing to those who still think “MMA” is a type of vaccine. The result has more in common with Warrior than you initially suspect. Kingdom may not be nominated for an award any time soon, but like Tom Hardy’s wonderfully moving flick, it deserves to find a wider audience than its intimidating subject might attract. Placed in the arena with Breaking Bad, Daredevil and The Man in the High Castle, Kingdom is a relative lightweight, but it still packs a dramatic punch.
The first six episodes of Kingdom will be available to watch on-demand exclusively for Virgin Media TV XL customers from Friday 1st April, with new episodes arriving every following Friday.