The greatness of DirecTV’s newest show can be partially summed up by the fact that Kingdom’s first episode is not titled “Pilot,” but rather, “Set Yourself on Fire.” Because this isn’t just another pilot of just another show. This is a gritty, complex, and altogether captivating hour that kicks off a 10-episode long adventure into the subculture of mixed martial arts. And with Frank Grillo at the helm, there are few places this show can go wrong, a fact that became evident in the first minute and a half of the show’s first episode.
Viewers, meet Alvey Kulina, an ex-MMA fighter and one-time legend. We catch up with him during his morning jog through Venice, California when a car pulls out in front of him and cuts him off. Alvey makes his anger known, f— you’s are exchanged, and suddenly, two guys are pulling guns on the unarmed jogger. Correction: They try to pull guns on Alvey, but years of training kicks in, and Alvey lays them both out flat within a matter of seconds. And with that, he jogs away. Welcome to Alvey’s world. Welcome to Kingdom.
Once at Navy Street—the gym Alvey runs with his girlfriend, Lisa—Alvey is in coaching mode. His youngest son, Nate, is training for his first big fight. At least until Ryan Wheeler enters the gym and steals everyone’s attention. Ryan, played by Matt Lauria, is a former fighting legend who spent the past four years behind bars and is now living at a halfway house. He also happens to be the ex-fiance of Lisa.
Alvey and Ryan head to the office for a chat, where Alvey agrees to let Ryan help train Nate for his fight. Alvey also updates Ryan on the life of Jay, Alvey’s oldest son, otherwise known as the family f— up. See, Jay used to fight before he started pulling out of all his matches and making Alvey look like an idiot. And now? Well, he takes care of younger brother Nate. And by take care, I mean that he sleeps with women wearing nothing but a Native American headdress and sunglasses… in Nate’s bed. Talk about an entrance.
But Jay isn’t all chaos. He still remembers to feed his younger brother and help him prepare for a fight, even if he does grill Nate’s steak while wearing nothing but his underwear and a vest. All the craziness aside, the brothers clearly have a lot of love between them, not to mention a lot of history with dear old dad if Nate chooses to live in a den of drugs and strangers instead of staying with Alvey and Lisa, who are busy arguing about Ryan’s return to the gym.
Lisa, not surprisingly, isn’t thrilled about seeing her ex-fiance every day, especially considering that Ryan apparently dumped Alvey once he got accepted to the UFC a few years back. But Alvey recognizes that. He also recognizes that Ryan is 28 and has a lot of fight left in him. Alvey needs a superstar both to stay relevant and to pay the rent, and from the looks of Ryan, he isn’t done yet.
But for now, Ryan’s involvement in the MMA world is strictly tied to Nate, who has to lose 17 pounds in the three days before his fight against Clint Walker. In other words, cue the sweat suit/workout/sauna montage that’s brilliantly split between Nate and Jay, who sits at home and gets high on heroine. As Nate duct tapes his suit to his arms, Jay ties a cord around his. Simultaneously, we’re getting a glimpse at Alvey’s kids, the ex-fighter and the up-and-comer. The one who’s lost relevance and the other who’s desperate to gain it. These are the two sides of life as a Kulina. And yet, they’re both fighters at heart.
The next day, Ryan and Jay catch up for the first time since Ryan got out of jail, and it’s over burritos that we hear Jay’s take on Alvey. According to Jay, addiction runs in the family, and his mother’s current status as a hooker and a drug addict has everything to do with the way Alvey treated her in their marriage. As for this good dad bit he has going with Nate? It seems to be a recent occurrence. But that’s no reason for Jay to throw away his life. Ryan encourages Jay to get back in the ring, or else become nothing more than “a broke motherf—er with some faded tattoos.” And in this moment, the title of the episode comes back into play: “Don’t set yourself on fire like I did,” Ryan tells Jay.
It’s a statement that clearly resonates with Jay, who, despite getting thrown out of his father’s gym for sparring with his younger brother earlier in the day, still shows up at Nate’s fight, because when showtime rolls around, all the Kulina guys come together. And just three rounds later, it looks as though the youngest Kulina is on his way to the top. That is, until the next day when Nate gets on his bike to enjoy his day off and runs into the gangsters his father beat up at the top of the hour. They’re hungry for revenge, and within moments, the next great up-and-coming fighter is left bleeding on the ground next to his bike.
Finally, away from the fight, Lisa ventures out to Ryan’s halfway house where he relives the day that put him in jail during a group meeting. As he puts it, he came home wasted to find his fiance and family staging an intervention. When he started to throw things, his father stepped in his way. “You don’t do that to me,” he says in a performance the solidifies Lauria’s powerful presence on this show. He continues to reveal how he spent his first two years in jail trying to kill himself, even attempting to slit his wrists with a melted down toothbrush. But in a moment of poetic writing, he says, “Self-destruction is self-obsession. I’m getting pretty f—ing sick of myself, so it’s time to change.”
That might be true for Ryan, but it’s certainly not true of the show itself: Kingdom doesn’t need to change. From the meaningful and oddly relatable content of the show to the intimate and artistic manner in which it’s shot, not to mention the casting, Kingdom has won its first fight. In the best of ways, it feels like the television child of Warrior and The Fighter, but that’s not to say it lacks its own identity or sense of originality.
Kingdom isn’t the next great television show about sports. It’s just a really great television show.