Every TV show has to have a hook in order to get your attention.
There’s simply too much on the tube these days to simply be good on the surface and get people to reserve a room in their world of make believe. Well, Direct TV’s hit series, Kingdom, will get you in the door and make you want to stay for a long time with its balanced concoction of fists, heart, blood and the family ties that tie them together and tear them apart the next day. The creator and executive producer, Byron Balasco, has always been a fan of the MMA arena and its inhabitants, but he wanted to make something more than just a show about fighting. What do these guys go home to and how much fuel does a single fight give somebody?
I came onto Kingdom due to my “watch anything with Frank Grillo in it” natural law, so when he mentioned a little MMA show called Kingdom in a 2014 conversation, I had to give it a look. Without Direct TV, I had to wait a year to watch but quickly consumed the 10 episodes and I strongly suggest you do as well.
This past week, I talked to Balasco over the phone about the raw power of Season 1 and what to expect when Season 2 premieres on October 14th.
Dan Buffa-What made you want to get into the world of MMA?
Byron Balasco-I’ve been a fan of the sport for many years even before it became what it is now. It was so interesting to see people get in a cage and fight for a living. The more I knew these people, the more interesting it became. As a writer, you are always looking for great worlds to set your characters in. Finding the best places to tell these stories. MMA seemed to be rife with opportunity. It’s a subject matter that doesn’t get a lot of networks excited because they feel it’s a world they know little about. It’s marketed as this hyper aggressive meat headed sort of stuff, and while it’s got some of that, these are real people with real lives with families. Instead of pitching the idea, I just wrote it myself so I could show them what it could be in the best way possible. Its a character drama. Endemol got a hold of it and understood it and were passionate about it. Direct TV jumped in for 10 episodes and we were off.
Buffa-I feel like you really lay your stamp on it with these hardened, dirty, flawed characters that we don’t see much around television. These are honest, real and imperfect people. I really liked that.
Balasco-That is the thing. What they are struggling with is what everybody deals with in their lives. However, I wanted to represent that world so sometimes they are a little more aggressive about it. They are more extreme. Writing them honestly and our cast is committed to playing it honestly makes it work. They give it that lived in feeling. You buy into these people.
Buffa-How important is Frank Grillo to this show? He seems to be the captain of that ship.
Balasco-He was the first one I brought on. The first piece of casting. Part of getting the show going was finding our Alvey. Frank’s name kept popping up to me. He was the first person I thought of. He wasn’t sure he wanted to do television but he read the script and we did a skype and within 20 seconds, we knew this was going to happen. He knows the world so intimately and he’s been doing it for 25 years. He’s been boxing his whole life so we could speak that same language. The places where I wanted to take the character were in line with places he wanted to explore as an actor. We made a pact that if we were going to do this, let’s do this all out.
Buffa-When I talked to Grillo the first time, he told me about people calling him up to have him train them after they saw the film, Warrior. He’s so authentic. You don’t meet Frank’s every day.
Balasco-There’s never a false note when he’s on set. You don’t feel like it’s work. It just seems natural.
Buffa-One of the strong points of Kingdom is balancing the ring aspect and the family part of the story. Was that important to you?
Balasco-That was very important. You have to have some fighting because that’s the world they are in and the stakes they are facing, but if you do a fight every episode, it gets monotonous. If they want to watch a fight every episode, they’ll find a real fight to watch. I really wanted to tell a story about these people’s lives.
Buffa-Direct TV gave your show a two season(20 episode) pickup. Was that surprising and did that give you some freedom in mapping out your story?
Balasco-It was very exciting. I was in France at Cannes selling the show and got the call. As far as changing my approach, I can look a little ahead and lay things out differently. However, we do go season to season. We are not a big plot driven show. It’s about the characters, so each season is a chapter in their lives. This show lends itself to that kind of storytelling. Yes, its nice to know we have a little bit of time, but it doesn’t change the way we attack a season.
Buffa-This characters are intense with some very intense scenes. How do these actors get worked up? Is there red bull drinking challenge in a steam room or something?
Balasco-All of these guys train incredibly hard and consistently. They train with real fighters on our set keeping us real. We all are a family who loves each other so there is a camaraderie. There is also a competition among them as well. They are brothers. You love them but you don’t want to be the weak link. Everybody, including Kiele and Joanna, shows up wanting to kill it. Everybody really cares and lives in these roles so it lends a sense of authenticity. We are also open to discover stuff on set and I will make a change on set if it makes the scene feel more natural.
Buffa-The great TV shows always feel like a family driven operation and not just a job. You guys are getting down in the trenches to create something special.
Balasco-That’s exactly right. This cast has a lot of chemistry together so it comes out.
Buffa-Season 1 left characters in a seemingly successful if jaded position. Fights in the ring were won but maybe lost on the homefront. Where does Season 2 open things up at?
Balasco-Some time has passed. There has been some success and they are in a new gym but still hanging by a thread. It’s like “you get ten extra bucks but you spend ten extra bucks.” That struggle is still real. There have been some changes. Alvey and Lisa are still trying to make it work. I don’t want to give too much away. The theme of this next season is the painful ascent. With success, it doesn’t always drag everybody at the same pace. It changes the dynamics and awakens new tensions among people.
Buffa-Alvey was telling Lisa early on in Season 1 about the threat of expanding. When you have this little indie family gym, it’s hard but it is yours. With more money, you invite more snakes in the den.
Balasco-You wonder why you are doing it? That’s a big part of the show. It was in the first season and will be in every season that comes after it. You fight so hard and chase something and nothing changes. You still have to deal with yourself and relate to the people in your life.
Buffa-It’s like a drug. It’s satisfying but you are always left wanting more and feeling unsatisfied. As a writer, I have homework for life because it’s always about the next story I write.
Balasco-Always. I’m telling you. Every time I finish a script, I feel good for half a day and then I start thinking about the next one and how it has to be better than the last. It never ends.
Buffa-You’ve come onto something really special here and are the first show to truly tackle MMA. In the press notes, it says to go with the Ronda Rousey craze, in season 2, there is a female fighter joining the ring.
Balasco-Honestly, that was a little less a Ronda Rousey thing and really from the fact I spend a lot of time in gyms and there’s female fighters in every gym. I go up to Albuquerque with Craig Jackson and hang out with him a lot. He trains some of the best fighters in the world and has women in his gym all the time. We want to be authentic and be real to the world. To not do that was a big glaring hole in our roster. The trick was finding the right actress. I worked with Natalie Martinez from a show I did called Detroit 187. She is a fighter in real life and can kick ass in real life. We have a great fight with her this season and she put everything into it. It pumped up the guys seeing her in it.
People can watch and enjoy a TV show but if you want people to love your show and talk about it in the street, at the gym, in restaurants and around the bars, it has to be authentic. In order to be authentic, the creator, crew and everybody involved must care about what they are doing. It’s their faces, heart and souls out there. Balasco, directors Gary Fleder and Michael Morris among others, the writers along with Grillo, Jonathan Tucker, Matt Lauria, Kiele Sanchez, Joanna Going, Nick Jonas, Mac Brandt and anybody else getting punched all care about making this show perfect. They sink all they have into it. It starts and ends with Balasco, the guy who wanted to put a unique twist on television and the world of MMA. He’s done other shows like Without a Trace and Huff, but Kingdom is his domain and that is felt in every scene of this show.
The second season premieres on October 14th, so you have plenty of time to watch the 10 episodes from season 1, join a gym, start punching things and get pumped up about season 2. It’s not just television. It’s a slice of life that combines the brutality of the ring with the fierce battlefield of a home.
Wrap your hands and head to Itunes, ladies and gents! Come October 14th, watch this show. If you don’t have Direct TV, make friends with someone who does, even if their apartment sucks and they are annoying.