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'Kingdom' creator on crafting a gritty family drama in the MMA world

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Nicole Wilder/DirecTV

When Byron Balasco tells people that his new show Kingdom is about Mixed Martial Arts, their response tends to be, “Oh, so it’s a reality show?” It’s not a wild notion, considering that we live in a world with very few (if any) scripted shows about MMA. But for Balasco, the idea never seemed far-fetched.

“I had been a fan of MMA for years and years and years, way back even before it became what it is, like 10-12 years ago even,” Balasco said. “And it always seemed like a great place to set a show because it’s such an interesting cross-section of characters. It’s people from a lot of different backgrounds and it’s definitely a subculture, which is a great place to go in, and it has a lot of universal themes that I think even if you’re not a fan of fighting, you can relate to.”

But taking that idea and turning it into a television show took years, mostly because Balasco knew that his show would live or die on the timing of his pitch. “I had this idea to do a show there for years but the timing wasn’t right in terms of the appetite for it. If you just say what the show is about, people either think it’s a reality show or they somehow assume it’s low-brow or just focused on violence because there’s a preconceived notion of what a show about the sport would be and what the sport is, period.”

So instead of pitching the premise and dealing with the many preconceived notions that surround the MMA world, Balasco started writing a spec script. “I made it the show I wanted it to be which is about the characters. It’s a family drama. Once I did that, I think people were able to see the potential of this show,” he said.

And now, Kingdom has a 10-episode order on DirecTV, with the first episode premiering tonight. Just like that, Balasco has successfully disproved the preconceived notions of the network and will now have to see if he can do the same with the general public.

For those who don’t know what Kingdom is about, it follows Frank Grillo as Alvey Kulina, an ex-MMA fighter who runs a gym in Venice, California. Also a father, Alvey has two sons: Up-and-coming fighter Nate (Nick Jonas), and fighter-turned-drug-addict Jay (Jonathan Tucker). Add in one of Alvey’s greatest fighters, Ryan (Matt Lauria), a former champion recently released from jail, and you’ve got the competitors. From there, the show also stars Kiele Sanchez as Lisa, Alvey’s girlfriend (and Ryan’s ex), and Joanna Going as Christina, Alvey’s ex-wife and the mother of their children, who has taken to prostitution to sustain her drug habit. At its core, Kingdom is a family drama about “not only the family within the show but the extended family of the sport and the gym and the neighborhood,” Balasco said.

And at the center of it all is Grillo, who played a similar role in the 2011 film Warrior and has a background in fighting. “Frank was the first person that was cast in the show because part of what we needed to do to get the show picked up was attract the right guy for the role of Alvey,” Balasco said. “[Frank] was the first guy that I wanted, and the first guy that I went to, and the first guy that I talked to. You should always have a few other people in mind in case something falls through, but I just couldn’t think that way because he was so perfect for the role. He’s been fighting for his whole life and is really highly trained, so to find a guy who can act the way he can act and has the physicality he does, it’s like you’d be a f—ing moron not to cast him.”

From there, the rest of the cast fell into place and Balasco turned his focus to the style of the show, which he described as “polished vérité.” “We try to make it feel as real and authentic as possible, but we also want it to feel cinematic,” he said. “So it’s not documentary-style or shaky camera-style. We spend a lot of time composing what we’re doing.”

For viewers, a good point of comparison might be the award-winning series, Friday Night Lights. Much like Friday Night Lights, Kingdom is about a sport, which will play a central role but is not the focal point. Also like Friday Night Lights, Kingdom is very focused on authenticity and has a gritty, realistic feel. “We tend to get compared to [Friday Night Lights] a lot. We’re a little more raw and we can kind of go a little bit further in certain areas just because of where we are, but yeah, that’s a nice comparison, certainly, because that was a great show,” Balasco said.

At the end of the day, Kingdom is a character-driven show about a subculture that has yet to be explored in scripted television. Now, the question is whether viewers are willing to step into the octagon.

Kingdom premieres tonight at 9 p.m. on DirecTV.