‘Kingdom’ Recap: The ties that bind the Kulinas 

Last week, the MMA drama zeroed in on Alvey and Jay Kulina.

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One of the bittersweet facts of life is that whether we like it or not, there are certain traits of our parents that can’t be deleted from our personality and can’t be hidden from our daily activities. The good things are promoted like an unbeaten championship fighter, but the bad parts are usually covered up and pushed into a corner, or at least we like to think it’s that easy.

We are our parents in so many ways that when the attempt is made to break out on our own, the past doesn’t let us go without mortgaging our future. The result can be an overbearing need to be as good, or better yet, try to be better than what came before us. Make them proud without sacrificing yourself.

This week on AT&T’s Kingdom, we were fed another brilliant hour of television, and my biggest takeaway from what fathers and sons do to each other in order to co-exist.

Example #1: Jay, Alvey, and a need to be involved

Jay Kulina (Jonathan Tucker) is trying so hard to NOT be like his father, Alvey (Frank Grillo), that he has stripped away everything that he is as person. He quit fighting, drugs, and doesn’t even hang out with his friends. He isn’t doing this to make a good life with Amy and his daughter; Jay is doing this to distance himself from a future painted in Alvey colors.

Since Kingdom debuted, there has been a seething tension between Jay and Alvey, like two similar beasts trying to figure out how to navigate their way down a highway in cars waiting to be wrecked.

When I interviewed Tucker last year, he broke down the Jay-Alvey divide. “He (Alvey) wasn’t a good father. There’s no love or compassion. He has an inability to see the wounds he has caused. Jay is an addict but he knows what he is. He is trying to seal the wounds that his father has torn apart,” Tucker explained.

Jay blames Alvey for the abuse done to his mother, the drugs and alcohol addiction that tore the Kulina family apart years before the show brought us into their lives. The love and compassion is something that Jay has all but stopped waiting for from his father.

Last season, when Jay won a title belt by cutting an extreme amount of weight, and the post-fight congratulatory moment from Alvey rang false to Jay, because Alvey seemed to make a bigger deal of the fact that his son won a belt, and not that he had done everything asked of him. Alvey was impressed by the belt instead of being proud of his son.

Jay elaborated on that moment: “You care about this trophy more than anything else. Jay wishes that Alvey would have put him in rehab or taken care of his mother. Now Jay has self worth because he has a belt. Alvey should have been proud of Jay when he came in under weight. It seems so false to Jay.”

Fast forward to Season 3, and Jay doesn’t invite Alvey to his daughter’s baptism. This was no accident. Jay didn’t want Alvey there. When he finds out from Nate (Nick Jonas) that everybody else including Lisa was invited but not him, it truly hurts Alvey. You can see it in the true grit expression on Grillo’s face near the end of “Ritual”. He has damaged something that can’t be healed, but he wants to try.

Think about this: one of the only reasons Jay went back to fighting was to try and make a last ditch effort to please his father. He saw how close Alvey was with Nate, and wanted some of that. When he made the comeback and won the belt, and saw the look on Alvey’s face of shock and awe after defeating Wheeler, something in Jay died. He did all of that to lock onto his dad’s good side, and it was for nothing.

Nate and the Ultimate Reveal

The other father-son dynamic on this show is between Alvey and Nate, with the ticking timebomb of a reveal of Nate’s sexuality. When Garo (Bryan Callen) tells Jay that the reason Dickson dropped out of the fight was due to rumors about Nate being gay, the pot starts to boil very quickly in several corners of this show.

Nate finds out from Jay as he is sitting down to dinner with his dad, and the acting from Jonas makes you tremble in nauseous anticipation at the reaction he will get from Alvey when the mystery is pulled away. How Alvey reacts could make or break his connection with Jay as well, so imagine losing both your sons in one reaction. That’s how fickle life can be to a flawed soul. You make one bad move, and it’s an uphill battle in muddy shoes.

Will a King Beast contract cost Ryan in the end?

Speaking of Garo and anticipation, he shows up at Ryan’s house with a brand new Dodger Charger, and wants to take him out for a night of cocaine, naked women, and perhaps some green paper. Garo offers Wheeler a three fight contract for 300,000 thousand dollars, and sprinkles 25K on top of the pot to get a signature at the strip club. One can only imagine this is how deals between fighters and promoters come to fruition in real life. Ryan signs the contract, much to Lisa’s dismay (she gets a text from Garo) and us as well. While I was happy Ryan is getting paid, I trust Callen’s suit as far as I can throw him.

Keith and his mad world

The new car and stack of cash can’t hide a tumbling down the rabbit hole of avocado despair Keith from interrupting phone calls and answering doors with a knife in his hand. Something is happening with Ryan’s “friend”, and the ending will be a troubling one. Creator/showrunner Byron Balasco’s writing is so good due to the fact that he has a restraining order from melodramatic tendencies in storytelling. His stories feel real and honest, and that shows in true fashion with Keith’s condition and the father-son trials and tribulations.

Dominick Ramos: A New Poison on Navy Street

Every season of Kingdom has a poison it seems like, with Mark Consuelos’ Chapas in Season 2A and Lisa Esco’s Ava in Season 2B. They drop in to poison the well, and test one of our main characters in ways that usually ends in their death, but not before cutting their victim off at the knees. You take Chappo away from Alvey, and maybe he doesn’t tumble so far down the drunken path. If Ava isn’t introduced to old habits with Jay, maybe the Kulina son doesn’t run away from fighting. Maybe not, but this season, the new “oh no” disturber is Kirk Acevedo’s Dominick Ramos.

With Alvey going back to fighting and needing to train, the gym needs a helping hand on coaching, but this guy looks like trouble. Acevedo’s Ramos is an ex-fighter from the Bronx who talks like he’s pulling wisdom word for word from his stomach. The slow drawl style that he chooses every single word like a sniper chooses his ammunition is a warning sign that this guy has something else going on.

He interviews with Lisa (Kiele Sanchez) and Alvey, and when Prince offers him the job later, we see Ramos shoveling protein powder from a bag to a canister in his boxers. Apparently, there was some trouble back East with money and certain people, but something tells me this is tied to Alvey. Something during their interview-especially the phrase “the Kulinas cast a long shadow”-makes me think bad deeds are ahead.

Ramos may have gotten the job, but I don’t trust him for a second. He’s like a human can of gasoline being kicked over on the mats at Navy Street. Watch out.

Christina Kulina, California brothel captain

The episode opens up with Joanna Going’s Christina stuffing a grocery cart with pizzas, ramen, and other goods. Did she become a nanny? Did she move somewhere? What is she doing? It turns out she has opened a brothel with Mr. Sleaze with an a Bond accent, with at least 4-6 girls posting webcam videos and doing some jobs on the side. If Christina can’t make a clean break from the life that has wrecked her life, she can at least move to a coaching position, and make some money.

Going was too good on this show to be killed off in that near overdose sequence from Season 2, and this season looks like a fresh body moving around in a wise soul. She helps nurture a young girl from Miami who gets roughed up in her first “scene” on the town with Mr. Sleaze, and is doing well. She doesn’t like that Jay is distancing himself from the family, but can’t help but cuddle her new granddaughter. She is one of the few that knows about Nate, so that makes me sweat in waiting for Alvey’s reaction.

Final thoughts:

*We all know the real estate thing isn’t going to work out for Jay, but will he at least get to punch that mean tenant in the jaw? As a person currently looking at homes and selling his own, I understand the decency in vacating the premises for a showing. Poor Jay. Trying to make an honest living, but that beast is always raging. Glad he still has the bags in the backyard.

*Who is taking care of Lisa? After getting so close to Wheeler at the end of Season 2B, Lisa is now living by herself and she looks lonely. Which male character will win this woman’s heart in the end?

*Did I mention how having just eight episodes left now is extremely saddening? We will all need a heavy bag in August.

*I have a fever, and I need more MAC BRANDT! The brown leather drug pouch is also a nice touch.

The thing I miss most about Kingdom when it’s gone are the Frank Grillo monologues. The soliloquies of wisdom that usually come on a couch or with a drink in his hand. Early in the episode, Alveys tells his therapist that he is returning to the ring, and part of that great speech from the trailer arrives. “I need to feel my full range of emotions. I need to be who I was.” If that last line doesn’t awaken something in you, get your pulse checked.

Grillo knows how to properly disperse gravity in his line readings, and when he talks about getting reacquainted with the beast inside, I had to rewind and watch it a few times just to soak it up. You can tell that Balasco wrote this character for Grillo, because the actor will never play another role that exists so close to his true self or mirrors his own fight in life, and he invests everything into these scenes and Alvey’s trek.

The scenes I rewind the most are the Alvey Kulina speeches. The moral compass of a show about flawed and damaged fighters needs to have weight, and Grillo packs a punch.

See you next week.

Kingdom On Audience: Episode 208 review-cap

This week on Direct TV’s Kingdom…

“Guys like me don’t get rich. They get by with bloody knuckles.”-Alvey Kulina

CQ_pxHnUsAASbySWhen episode 208 of Kingdom opens, Alvey Kulina(Frank Grillo) is talking to his shrink but he could just be talking to himself in a mirror. At some point in life, we figure out that we are who we are. Nothing is changing. A person can’t be rewired to act differently. Alvey is faced with these facts as Lisa has been gone for weeks, staying in her dad’s condo with the pregnancy entering its final stages. What is a fighter when everything outside the ring has been taken away. He has his fists and need to impose his will on whoever comes into his path. Luckily this week, Alvey has Alicia(Natalie Martinez) to train and prepare for her big exhibition fight.

Alicia’s big debut was just one of many big moments this week on Kingdom. With every hour that passes by, creator Byron Balasco seems to be loading up for the big punch and in this hour, he unleashes a deadly hook to viewers with the Jay Kulina(Jonathan Tucker)/Christina(Joanna Going) story line.

The Jay/Christina subplot has been simmering since late season 1 when the kid pulled his mom off the streets and cleaned her up. Their relationship is built on a foundation of trust but what happens when that trust is betrayed. Christina quit her job at Patty Palace weeks ago and hasn’t told Jay. She also hasn’t told him that she is working as an escort again. She also hasn’t let him in on the whopper of a revelation that she is using drugs again, shooting heroin into her foot. When Jay and Ryan Wheeler(Matt Lauria) are having their day off party, Mac(Mac Brandt) tells the wild Kulina to go get some food and why not grab some burgers from a place where your mom works.(Not that Jamal would have allowed free food to leave that joint). When Jay catches up with the audience and goes back to the house to find the hidden drugs Christina has stashed, the Jonathan Tucker show takes over. Allow me to explain…

TV shows with ensemble casts rarely find time to showcase each and every member of their cast. Kingdom executes this to perfection. Every actor feels lived in, real and breathing. There are no caricatures on Navy Street and this climatic moment proves it. Tucker is a live wire entertainer with more speeds than most actors. He can be a sinner, saint, and joker all inside one take. However, we’ve never seen him dig this deep. He starts the episode out giving a tense Alicia a massage, nearly hurts Ryan in the ring, and helps wrestle a depressed and philandering Nate(Nick Jonas, swollen emotionally and physically for perhaps the entire season) out of bed for a little party. He’s happy on the outside but quietly waging war on himself on the inside, trying to make weight for a big fight, stay out of trouble and enjoy himself while being lovestruck. However, the Christina betrayal sets something off inside him. An explosion. The look in Jay’s eyes as he desperately asks everyone to leave his house so he can deal with his mother is heartbreaking and brilliantly played.

The Scene of the Year! Tucker and Going are masterful in this scene. She comes home to a quiet house where Jay is waiting. Here, the audience thinks he will just bitch her out and take her to rehab. Like every other fucking show on television. He does her seven steps worse. He is going to shoot himself with drugs and flip the script. Instead of him cleaning up her mess, she will have to care for him as he is under the influence of one of the deadliest drugs on the market. You may see Jay and friends snort cocaine like its going out of style, but shooting drugs into your system is where the overdoses happen and serious damage occur. Jay knows this and punishes Christina by hurting himself. He is taking the beast that stalks his mom around and taking it for a ride. This is the scene of the year for me. So far.

Why Do You Fight? Elsewhere on Navy Street as the Kulina’s deal with internal infrastructure maintenance, Alicia is losing it before her big fight. After a training session with Alvey that reveals a back injury and a walk along Venice Beach that reveals the lack of drive Alicia has for stepping into the ring. In order to truly be great in MMA or Boxing, you have to want it and be able to pinpoint the exact reason why. You don’t get punched in the face in order to pay the bills. In the Grillo Greatness moment of the week, he tells Alicia he fights because he likes to hurt people, beating them up and stealing their identity. The only thing missing from Grillo’s speech as Daniel Day Lewis’ legendary milk shake line from There Will Be Blood. Alvey knows why. Jay and Ryan know why they fight. Nate and Alicia….they don’t. Not yet.

Before it’s time to take the ring, Alicia is really losing it. She is crying. Exhibition or not, the nerves before a fight are unique. It’s not like getting into a fight on a street. That’s all instinct. Fighting for a living is like seeing the bully in the first class at school and telling them you will fight after school. For the next six hours, you boil inside and figure all the possible outcomes. That is Alicia. She has rage, talent and potential but once you climb into the ring, as Alvey said at the top of the hour, it’s you all alone in this world.

After a little Alvey pushing, Alicia climbs into the ring. I’ve said before Grillo says fuck better than any actor out there, including DeNiro. Well, watch the locker room scene between him and Martinez and you will get his best impression of DeNiro. When Alicia says she can’t do it, Grillo cocks his head, turns it and delivers the best Bobby D impression, intentional or not. It’s beautiful. Go watch it again and come back here to finish the cap.

Alicia doesn’t just win the fight. She destroys the other woman. Martinez’s authenticity, like Grillo’s. shines through here. A kickboxer in real life who moves like a ninja with swag and attitude, she survives a tough first round and is born inside the octagon. When she scores the takedown of a lifetime and pounds on her opponent before Joe Daddy calls it, everything changes. She has an endorsement deal, a future in fighting and apparently no need for Ryan Wheeler shenanigans any longer. After the fight, she tells a drunk drugged up yet alert Wheeler that it’s over.

The dudes on this show aren’t having a good season my friends.

What else happened?

~In the Keith moment of the week, he catches a pair of pool side kids playing TMZ hawks, recording Ryan have some fun with cocaine. He catches them and tosses the phone. He may not be put together like everybody else, but Keith is a useful guy when it comes to avocado farms, drinking, and paparazzi.

~Lisa’s pregnancy hits a wall when she has to go in for extra tests to see if there is a concern with the baby. She misses Alicia’s fight but leaves Alvey a message that it is a boy and that the Maker of Men has struck again. There’s hope for these two yet.

~Wheeler goes off about Alvey devoting a whole day to Alicia and while it may seem like nothing, this may come into play later with the result of Ryan’s fight. There’s a simmering boil inside Lauria during every episode that is set to explode but let me tell you it won’t be a gym mirror he damages this time.

~Every episode features a Grillo training session. Forget Billy Blanks and any other trainer you can find. Just watch Grillo work. He’s trained in gyms of all kinds and lives and breathes this environment like a second layer of skin. He’s a joy to watch.

There are two hours left ladies and gents. Fireworks have gone off but more await. Are you ready? With success comes a heightened state of desire. Will it burn down the Kulina bridge? December will reveal it all. There are no winter breaks on Kingdom. It is coming at you every week. If you are behind, catch up on Itunes, Amazon, Audience on demand or Uverse on demand. Do it. Think later. Just watch.

Every obsession with a TV show starts with a plunge. There are shows you watch and like, but do other stuff while it plays. There are shows that captivate you for the entire hour. I watched this hour of Kingdom in one prolonged death stare.  My phone, a dark room, an open window and a lack of fluids. After every hour, I work out. This show will make you want to work out, hit something or show passion. It connects. Try it out.

Come back next week for more Kingdom talk.

Kingdom On Audience: Episode 207 reviewcap

CQ_pxHnUsAASbyS“The beast in me. Is caged by frail and fragile bars. Restless by day. And by night rants and rages at the stars. God help the beast in me.”

It’s hard not to think of the Johnny Cash torture tune when watching this latest episode of Direct TV’s Kingdom. Season 2 has been a slow descent for every character. The ascent to better things and happiness is met with new hardships previously unknown. There’s a beast in all of us. Every day. We choose to stare it down or ignore it. It’s there and alive. Here’s what happened on Kingdom.

Alvey is going down the rabbit hole. A straight fucking nose dive into madness. The ex-fighter/trainer/maker of men is spinning out of control after his wild night with Chapas leaves him at the mercy of the police station the next morning. If only all the bad shit that has happened with King Kulina could be placed on the old friend with the snake eyes grin and his sturdy shoulders. There’s more to it. Alvey is a former drug addict my friends. This is a door being pushed open that he is swinging open furiously.

It’s a joy to watch Frank Grillo spar with this version of Alvey. The demon straggler. Actors are at their best when they are playing fucked up people stuck in between the black, white and gray areas of life. Grillo is going full bore at this devil’s tomb dancer. When we first saw Alvey, he was firing guns, smiling like a preacher’s son and seemed to be walking on water. Now he is down in the pits, fighting for everything. He takes his youngest son, Nate(Nick Jonas, as innocent as vanilla ice cream but hiding a heat of his own) to Fresno for the under the radar dirty backyard brawl that EVERYONE knows is bad for the kid. When you get knocked out, though, your head wants to do vicious things to the rest of your body.

Alvey drinks like a fish, and this is whiskey folks. When the opponent predictably comes in over weight, he nearly beats the shit out of him because he saw all this coming. Nate is abrasive to Alvey’s advice and knowledge because he pushed too hard and doesn’t know a thing about the young man. They are oceans apart. Bonded by blood but nothing else. In need to attacking the ground game to protect his head, Nate takes the fight to the boxer turned MMA challenger. Remember, this isn’t a normal fight, taking place indoors and sanctioned properly. When the ref breaks up the two fighters any time Nate gets him into a submit stance, doom settles in. Suddenly, the kid seems to give up. He gets his head bashed in. Beaten impulsively to the mat by this nobody puncher. When his plan doesn’t go as planned, Nate is left in the dark again. A kid with no true hunger for the sport. He is beaten bad and spends the night in the hospital. Alvey is…well, he is beside himself but does it even matter.

Here is a guy who didn’t know where his license went. A guy who seems to drink in as many places as he can. This is the Alvey who ran off in Season 1 and met Andre Royo’s hotel savant. Bad news Alvey.

In the end, he gets what is coming to him. A punch he didn’t see coming. Lisa, after speaking with her dad earlier, has made a choice. She is moving into her pops vacant condo for a while. How long? Indefinitely. Her and the baby. These two were hanging by a thread at the end of season 1, and then a baby came along. Now they are at that crossroads again. A place where Lisa doesn’t know how much of Alvey she will ever be able to get or have for herself. I hate to say it but he deserves it.  He needs a push. Alvey Kulina doesn’t need a drug. He is the fucking drug.

By the way, every time I say fucking or fuck, picture Grillo saying it. It sounds better!

Ryan Wheeler and his dad truly make peace. I’ll be honest and say I expected this interview to go awry. Everything was going so smooth on this train of redemption that something turbulent had to strike it. I was wrong. Wheeler’s dad came to the gym and gave an impassioned interview with his son. The work turned in by Matt Lauria and M.C. Gainey isn’t just good or great. It’s magnificent. Two actors who are sewn into their roles, keeping the fabric of this show unique and fresh.

Right when you think his dad will sabotage everything or say something to erase all the good, Gainey pours out the heart of this character in telling Ryan that he just wants his boy to be happy and at peace. He was Ryan’s hero growing up, sharpening him into the fighter he is today. For the past 16 hours, Wheeler has been self-inflicting pain onto himself. Wrapping a storm around himself because he didn’t just have a big fight with his dad like we all do. He put him in a wheelchair for life. While that’s not Keith justice(stabbing to death), it’s pretty deep shit that doesn’t go away with prison time served. Hearing his father say it’s all good, maybe Ryan will stop purposefully stepping on shit. He may be the happiest character on the show right now. Remember when he was wanting to kiss Lisa and smashing up the gym? Long time ago bro!

Poor Jay can’t have anything. He can’t have real food. Steak, bacon, sandwich, bread or pasta. He can’t have the woman of his dreams who came into his life like a ninja, chopping his heart into a thousand pieces and not giving him a map to find them. He can’t trust his mom. He feels like he is abandoning his younger brother Nate, even though a big hug could probably do wonders for the man. He doesn’t like his friend Mac because he eats large sandwiches with his time. All Jay has is his look, his tenacity, and his ability to see right through people. He has no answers, can’t make weight and is miserable. Remember the guy shooting at a dummy in his underwear? That man had things figured out. This Jay is lost and it’s beautiful. Gives Jonathan Tucker a canvas to dance on. The man is a marvel. Just watch.

Lisa is having a baby and feels zero connection to it. Why does she feel this way? Well, let’s see. Look at the men from her world. Alvey is a drunk. Nate is a closeted gay who can’t figure out what he wants to do or be so getting punched in the head may work. Jay is a misguided mess who does drugs to stay up all night to see if his girlfriend calls. Oh yeah, and her ex-love is the champ who trains under her husband and someone she has to work with. Poor girl. No wonder Bruce Davidson’s dad can see her armor picking up a few dents. For the past season and a half, she has stuffed her own needs in a box and forgotten about them. Finally, with the move out of Alvey’s place and into the condo, she may recapture something. Or find out how bad she misses the madness.

The next day in the gym will tell all.

What else?

Christina is doing drugs again, going back to her nasty pimp, who tries to talk sense into her after pounding her from behind for the tab. She can’t play it straight or feel good enough about hooking, so she is content to walk between the hot coals and the sandy beaches for the time being.

I hereby nominate Keith’s new look to be the greatest look of all time!

Is it wrong that I wanted more Jay-Laura-Paul tripod danger?

I spied creator Byron Balasco next to the bald shady promoter during the Nate fight. The man has to take some time to be in this masterpiece of a show he created that is the new binge required series.

Where does Nate go from her? That is after he finds his tongue two miles down his throat.

Does Alvey find Chapas? Of course he does. According to Lisa’s old man, the investment looks good but what is Sean not telling Alvey? Why did he say in the car before the police pulled them over that he was sorry? Bad news Chapas!

When does torment fueled Ryan return?

Tune in next week for episode 208. Did you like what you read here? Tell me one way or the other. I’m not shutting up anytime soon.

You can catch up on Season 1 and 2 on Itunes, Amazon, Direct TV or UVerse On Demand. No place to hide folks.

-DL Buffa

Kingdom on Audience: “Happy Hour” reviewcap

What happened this week on Direct TV’s Kingdom?

Disclaimer: This isn’t a review or a recap. It’s something in between. A punch with some flow to its descent. My take on Kingdom, Season 2, Episode 5, Happy Hour.

grilloThis week on Kingdom, shit hit the fan in quiet and loud ways. Let’s get to the meat of the episode before we deal with the potatoes and carrots.

THE MEAT

Jay and Laura flame out

We saw this coming. The minute Christina(Joanna Going) told Laura(Jessica Szohr) about her troublesome past, fucked up children and painful life, the new lady in Jay’s life got scared out of her mind. She didn’t just have a normal boyfriend. She had a potential chaotic animal in her midst. The episode followed through on the paranoia Jay(Jonathan Tucker) felt last week, and the two seemed to put an end to Jay’s fears. The fear that Laura is hiding something from him and it involves Paul’s supposedly “too big” cock.

After a day of questioning and thoughtful input from Alicia Mendez(Natalie Martinez), Jay and Laura got it on in that mind blowing fashion she told him about earlier in the hour. Afterwards, he spots her texting and lays into her. Soon after, she wants him to leave and Jay breaks down in desperation. He is jealous, insecure and new to this relationship thing. Most kids have daddy issues. Jay has mommy issues. He thinks Laura is going to run out on him and that fear follows him around rush hour traffic. It has infiltrated his life.

Ryan, his dad and the healing power of whiskey

Behold, the healing power of whiskey. It breaks ice in many ways and has healed marriages, relationships and also father/son quandaries. This particular case, Ryan trying to help a dad(MC Gainey, better than ever) that he put into a wheelchair, has a specific beat to it. In season one, all fans got from this tormented relationship was a quick visit from Ryan that didn’t end well. This season, with his mom gone, Ryan can reenter his dad’s life and try to help.

This part of Season 2 is exceptional. A real powerful sequence of events that isn’t getting overly emotional or melodramatic. On a network show, the pop song would start playing and Ryan or his dad would melt down as The Fray blared on your speakers. Here, in Byron Balasco land, it’s taunt silence and sparse dialogue. This is a chess match between two men, enraged and wild yet trying to bury a monstrous hatchet.

His dad wants a real drink and Ryan gives it to him, thus taking a few long pulls himself. Father and son, drunk and watching National Geographic. It doesn’t get any better than this. While Frank Grillo’s Alvey is the rock and Jonathan Tucker’s Joker Jay is the soul, Matt Lauria’s Ryan is the tightly wrapped heart of Kingdom. His scenes with Gainey here are masterful. They don’t twist the viewer in knots with sappy writing and over the top dialogue. At the end of the hour, the look they share in the recognition of their new world is just enough to make you hit pause and take a moment to digest a great TV moment that was earned.

THE POTATOES

Alvey: The new age Mickey

More like Alvey connects with Alicia in the gym. This scene is where the technical aspects of this show thrive for a few minutes. The story takes a backseat and we get a glimpse into the authentic world of an MMA gym. Fighters wrap their hands before they hit something. This scene is Alvey rewrapping Alicia’s fighting identity. In the ring, throwing jabs and combinations and pivoting out of trouble. Any fighter can stand and throw but what happens when the other fighter is setting you up or starts walking you down in the ring.

The interesting part is Natalie Martinez is a legit badass kickboxer in real life. Grillo knew her from the film End of Watch they were in but also from MMA gyms. So it’s a cool lick to see her step into a ring with Alvey and the parallels of real life collide with the make believe. Between the two actors, you got over 40 years of fighting experience.

Balasco and his writers have treated Alicia like an onion this season. Every episode they peel off a layer. The episode opens with her arriving at the gym and shoving blankets in her trunk. Later on, she is losing her mental approach in the ring with the legendary Alvey, the reason she came to Navy Street. Or is it? It could have been her shitting on the other gyms she tried to train at. Her physical game can be honed. Can her mental one catch up? Is she the female equivalent of Nate(Nick Jonas)?

Watching this scene made me want to have Grillo give me five minutes in the cage.

Nate gets a dirty fight in Fresno

Ah, Mr. Jonas and his troublesome character, Nate Kulina. The kid who has collected a concussion per season without only one win to show for. Here is a hungry kid who only feels like a true man in the ring and can only silence the whispers when he is training or fighting. He takes a desperate fight with Doctor Shady Promoter in Fresno, which is like the Mac Brandt fight the season opened with. Not good for a championship contender like Nate. Or at least Alvey thinks so.

When he finds out, Nate threatens to walk. Remember the trajectory here. In Season 1, Nate parted ways briefly with Alvey due to the old man getting too close. What if he loses again? What if he gets really damaged in Fresno? It may not bring him a lot of money but if he loses, word will travel fast and his career could fall from relevance quick. This would be like an NBA star taking a street game in an abandoned school yard with a bunch of ex-cons. Not good.

THE CARROTS

Christina and unhappiness

Or is she unhappy? She gets confronted by her nasty pimp in the Patty Palace and since she didn’t rat on him to the cops, he let her continue her clean life. While she quit the drugs, that doesn’t mean she isn’t hooking anymore. We see her perform some escort duties on the side, making more money than she probably does in a month at the restaurant. Will she go back to her old life? What will Jay do when he finds out? If she is clean, is it okay? While she doesn’t get a ton of screen time, Joanna Going really brings it here and makes the most of her minutes.

Lisa, pregnant yet ambitious

Kiele Sanchez has been a quiet strength this season. She is promoting and nurturing the talented yet rebellious Alicia and trying to find Ryan sponsors. Since his past is messy, he is a tough target but an energy drink may be a fit for Mendez. All the while, Lisa still looks at Alvey like he is the last man on the planet worthy of making her happy. These two have been through hell(we haven’t dug into Alvey’s drug fueled past too much yet) but they still love each other. The end, where Lisa asks for a little Kulina lovemaking, was so well played by the two actors, it made me laugh and smile a bit in admiration.

Final round

~One of the anticipated parts of Season 2 has to be Alicia’s first fight. The effect of that fight could hit the entire gym hard.

~How much trouble will Sean Chapas get Alvey in next episode? I see police lights. Not good, this man from the past. Human Torch!

~Which Kulina loses this season? Nate has already lost once, but will Ryan and Jay both win their next fights? One of the best parts of the show is the unpredictable nature that creeps on each hour.

Next week, entitled “Pink At Night” promises to be a season adjuster. Are you ready? Keep up on Itunes and Amazon if you missed episodes.

Talking with “Kingdom” creator Byron Balasco

Byron Balasco merges fists, family and MMA in his show Kingdom. Here’s my chat with the creator/executive producer.

Michael Buckner/Getty Images
Michael Buckner/Getty Images

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.