Friday, October 03, 2014

Kingdom: MMA Family Values

This is one family drama that could not take place in New York, because that pesky ban on mixed martial arts bouts remains in effect. Instead, the Kulina family weighs-in in Venice, California, where hardnoses and stoners live in close proximity. Time will tell whether the family that cage-fights together, stays together in creator-showrunner Byron Balasco’s Kingdom (promo here), which premieres on DirecTV’s Audience Network this coming Wednesday.

Alvey Kulina came up in the wild and woolly days of MMA, faring just well enough to earn a small but devoted fanbase. Retired from the ring, but still seriously bad, Kulina now owns and operates Navy St. MMA, where he trains the general public and potential contenders alike. Currently, the best fighter in his gym is his youngest son, Nate. Kulina’s eldest son Jay also used to train at Navy St., but his father gave him the boot because of his bad attitude and hard partying.

Into their lives some drama will fall when Ryan Wheeler is released from prison. Kulina used to manage the natural born fighter, but Wheeler abruptly dumped him just as his career ignited. When Wheeler’s drug-fueled rage landed him a stint up the river, his girlfriend Lisa Prince understandably cut her losses. Regretfully, he came to realize she was probably “the one,” but she has since become involved with Alvey Kulina. So yeah, awkward. There also happen to be a couple of drug dealers out for revenge after the beatdown old man Kulina lays on them in the opening minutes of the show. He’s such a badass, he hardly gives it any thought, but they seem rather put out by it.

Without question, Frank Grillo (from Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Warrior) is the key piece to this puzzle. He has all kinds of grit and presence as the senior Kulina, bringing legit action chops to the party as well. Frankly, Kingdom is a perfect example why you need to see a fair number of episodes before passing judgment on a series, because Jay Kulina is like fingernails on the blackboard in the first episode, but in the next three installments, Jonathan Tucker gets a solid handle on the character, making his irresponsible self-destructiveness sympathetic and sometimes even fun.

Likewise, Kiele Sanchez’s Prince initially only seems to be around to lecture Alvey regarding money issues as Navy St.’s business manager, but she develops in insightful ways, particularly with respects to the older Kulina siblings. There is an understanding she probably has more in common with the Kulina brothers, but finds herself a maternal role, by virtue of her relationship with the father. Unfortunately, Nick Jonas’s moody energy-killing brooding is still pretty boring, but there is time to figure out something better for Nate to do.

Frankly, given Prince’s proactive nature and the surprisingly high ratio of interpersonal drama to MMA, Kingdom appears to be targeting women as much as men. There are certainly plenty of shirtless guys, but there is also some well staged MMA sequences and the occasional bit of female nudity, in order to establish its cable-satellite edginess.

Not surprisingly, as a blend of MMA and family melodrama, Kingdom is somewhat uneven, but briskly watchable, firmly held together by Grillo’s grizzled coolness. At risk of abusing metaphors, you might argue it wins a split decision. Sort of a slightly guilty pleasure for fans of the sport, Kingdom premieres this Wednesday (10/8) on DirecTV’s Audience Network.