A brash examination of Latino machismo, a meditation on loyalty in both business and marriage, a ferociously comic warning against the dangers of gambling addiction, an argument that Carole King may have a salutary influence on hip-hop — Kingpin is all this and so much more, but that’s not the way the media are covering NBC’s frequently brilliant new production. Instead, Kingpin, starring Yancey Arias as Miguel Cadena, a Mexican drug lord, husband, and father with the most divided loyalties since whoever the dad was in Cheaper by the Dozen, is being set up to fail — by the media and its own network. Early TV-critic coverage of Kingpin instructs you to think of this as NBC’s answer to HBO’s boundary-busting fare; NBC itself is probably making a big mistake in airing two episodes a week of this six-episode series at a time when viewers’ attentions are distracted by the glut of sweeps and reality programming. Worse, the network runs ludicrous ads touting Kingpin as being ”from the director of The Sopranos.” Huh? The Sopranos has had many different directors, and the network is doubtless referring to Allen Coulter, a Sopranos helmer, who directed Kingpin’s premiere — but such hype isn’t just misleading: It’s ignorant.
Yes, Kingpin revolves around a well-off clan with crime connections; yes, it occasionally caps a seriocomic scene with a moment of startling violence. (In the premiere, one thug feeds a human leg to his pet tiger; by the fourth hour, a kinky Englishman who wants to cane a Cadena-hired prostitute is stabbed in the chest.) But as he proved in his 2000 HBO miniseries The Corner, Kingpin creator David Mills is intrigued by interracial and intercultural connections and disconnections in a way that Sopranos don David Chase is not. Mind you, I’m not saying Kingpin is better than the adventures of Tony and his gang, but that it has different goals and ideas on its mind, and explores them with exciting snap.
With his big, intelligent eyes, slim frame, and graceful movements, Arias is hypnotically convincing as a tight-lipped businessman whose inherited business happens to be running cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamines into America. Mills and his writers do a daring thing: Fully aware that television is not supposed to, y’know, ”glamorize drugs,” Kingpin nonetheless refuses to deny that for a first-generation college graduate like Miguel, it’s still important to live, as one character refers to our protagonist, as ”a man of honor.” (The fact that said character is a corrupt sheriff only makes the distinction more knottily ambiguous.) Miguel seems to take no pleasure from his big house and fancy lifestyle; he revels only in the happiness of his 8-year-old son (Ruben Carbajal) and the love of his wife (a superbly tough, tender performance by Twin Peaks’ Sheryl Lee). The rest of it is all headache: keeping his hotheaded brother Chato (Third Watch’s Bobby Cannavale, melding slickness with crudity) in line, dealing with cousins who despise his gringa spouse, Marlene. (”The women in your family…make me feel like the only white girl on earth,” she says bitterly.)
Kingpin has at least three strong subplots, one involving a DEA agent played by Angela Alvarado Rosa who gets shot in the debut but remains relentless in pursuing the Cadena cartel; Dream On’s Brian Benben as a sweaty, desperate plastic surgeon in over his head as a part-time drug dealer; and Drumline’s Shay Roundtree as a smart young ”enforcer” who brings the viewer into fractious exchanges between black and Latino cultures.
Equal parts Brian De Palma’s Scarface and Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Kingpin boasts golden-hued cinematography and terrific small supporting roles, including Maria Conchita Alonso as a too chatty sex partner for Chato, and Sean Young as Benben’s harridan estranged wife. I’m not going to belabor the Sopranos comparison beyond saying that Miguel Cadena’s self-awareness of the evil he’s committing in the service of his family would make Tony Soprano’s brain burst from the tension and moral contradictions, and it is this self-awareness that lends Kingpin its air of tragic majesty. There are times when the hour’s pacing seems as languid as a hot Mexican afternoon, but I think that’s intentional: Kingpin wants to establish a rhythm that’s unique in rush-rush prime time. This is a show that deserves a longer run, to permit Miguel’s profound conflictedness to play out. Let’s see if NBC has the cojones to stay with this project as a series, or whether it chickens out if Kingpin’s Sunday-night competition, ABC’s Dragnet, pulls in bigger numbers in a less adventurous manner.