On July 1, an MMA series named “Kingdom,” centered around a roughneck California family of fighters and the gym that houses their exploits, debuted on Netflix to instant acclaim from television fans who either had no idea it ever existed before, or simply were happy to find premium content.
To some people, it was the second show with that name available on Netflix. While the other dealt with a “Game of Thrones” medieval-type world, Byron Balasco’s fighting drama showcased in great detail what true battle scars look like, the ones earned inside-as well as outside-of the octagon.
Balasco’s show ran for three seasons and 40 episodes on the DirecTV-licensed Audience Network back in 2014 through 2016, receiving near flawless reviews from critics but a very small cult audience. Due to the limited range the cable channel had, few people flocked their way for original content. When it quietly closed its doors a little over four years ago with a bittersweet rush of a series finale, no one really knew that it even existed.
But Netflix fixed that this summer. With COVID-19 boxing most indoors for long stretches, “Kingdom” found the right route to success. With a cast knocking the raw and edgy dialogue out of the park, Balasco’s words found a newer and much larger audience primed for this level of entertainment. You knew Frank Grillo, Jonathan Tucker, Kiele Sanchez, Matt Lauria, Joanna Going, Mac Brandt, and the other members of the esteemed cast from somewhere-but you weren’t sure which role it was. You knew Nick Jonas could sing, but could he fight? Could this group of eclectic talent fight? They were an island of misfit-yet heavy-hitting and big hearted-talent.
I was hooked after the first hour. It was like watching people you knew, rolled out looking and speaking a little differently. Balasco’s souls carry real world weight with them, so the stories always come off as authentic and powerful. It’s not just cutting weight and making another human being tap out. “Kingdom” explored the many different ways that life can make the strongest of humans tap out without even laying a hand on them in the first place.
These are the kind of roles that actors decide to sleep in their car for. The script resembles a perfectly cut ribeye steak to performers, giving them the best work of their lives. “Kingdom” is no different. Frank Grillo may have beat up Captain America to most mainstream customers, but he sank his heart and soul into the anti-hero of Navy Street, Alvey Kulina. Part fighter, part cave man who doesn’t like to age, Alvey carries his past around with him like an extra arm to hit you with, a painful swagger that has taken a toll.
Kiele Sanchez’s Lisa Prince was far from a mere princess of Navy Street; while Alvey trained fighters and chased the past, Lisa kept the books updated and the lights on. She made the boat run smoothly, while Alvey tweaked the engine with new talent. But sometimes, the best new talent can be a face from the past.
That face, Ryan Wheeler (played to hard-boiled perfection by Lauria), represented an intersection of shared chaos for Alvey and Lisa. The same could be said for Going’s Christina, Alvey’s ex-wife and the mother of their two sons, Jay and Nate (Tucker and Jonas), who starts showing up in her kids’ lives and around Alvey’s world. Nate is an ambitious young fighter who is also a closeted gay man trying to figure out how to express that to his dad and brother. Jay is a former cage fighter who allows too many drugs to sleep in his house, thus making him a double-edged sword of epic persuasion.
Talk about a dream role for an actor. Tucker sinks everything he has and knows into his performance as the older Kulina brother, a burnt-out prodigy who is trying to get his wings back. You may know his face from other roles (including last year’s “City on a Hill”), but his soul will forever belong to Jay Kulina. It’s not just the crackerjack smile or whipsmart sense of humor, or his endearing kindness and warm heart towards his family, but the dangerous sharpness to his actions. A grenade with the pin hanging more loose than required, Jay is capable of anything.
The same can’t be said for Jonas’ Nate. A guy slowly being strangled living inside the sheets of a more marketable version of himself, Nate wants to win fights and make his dad and brother proud, he wants to live freely someday. Lauria’s Wheeler is a similar combustible engine, this one built around self-torment and rage. A past including a brutal assault that landed him four years in prison and a large chip weighing on his shoulder at all times due to his past romance with Lisa have churned Ryan into what he is: effortless physicality bordering on unpredictable behavior that will shock you at times.
I’d be remiss if I left out Paul Walter Hauser’s Keith, a troubled young man whom Ryan takes under his wing. Or maybe you could say it was the other way around at times. Two ex-cons who become unlikely friends, for better or worse, Hauser matches Lauria’s power in every scene, down to the very painful yet true final moments in Season 3. It’s great work that shouldn’t be forgotten.
Natalie Martinez is a promising if unstable young fighter who shows up to shake up Navy Street. Brandt’s nurse/fighter could be called a soldier of Navy Street, refueling fighter’s engines and being there in a time of need. Brandt has been in over 60 projects in his career, but his Mac Sullivan stands as his best work. There’s more where Mac came from, and that flows throughout the entire cast.
A great show that simply needed to be reborn elsewhere, “Kingdom” has gained a whole new fan base in the two-plus months it has been streaming on Netflix. Constantly rated in the top ten most viewed and recently spawning a personal fan page on social media, Balasco’s show is gaining momentum for a proposed fourth season.
While nothing official has been announced, one can see a future batch of episodes-a fourth season essentially-become more of a reality than a dream. That’s what it was with DirecTV for so many years. The series wasn’t even available in its entirety, as in one spot or package, until iTunes picked it up last September.
One could say a lot has changed this year for the longtime, and brand, lovers of the series. These days, the aforementioned social media powerhouse influencer known simply as “Bring Back Kingdom” had a Facebook grow from 50 people to nearly 3,500 in a little over a month. All you will find there are good people who truly love the show and want to help more people find it. The discussions on there have led to even deeper discovery of a show that hid its pearls just well enough for a viewer to dig them up.
At its heart, in some unique way, “Kingdom” will always be a cult classic. More well-known than ever before, yet still carrying that quietly dignified yet wild blend of warrior heart that a smaller portion of viewers completely connect to. The show chased after that demon known to many real life fighters who can’t undo the ties that bind the world of martial arts to a soul permanently. Those real people appreciated the level of authenticity that Balasco and company brought to the story lines.
These days, someone new everyday is exploring “Kingdom,” the latest show that Netflix helped stand reborn.