Kingdom Season 1, Episode 1, “Set Yourself on Fire”
Directed by Adam Davidson
Written by Byron Balasco
Airs Wednesdays at 9pm on the Audience Network
Kingdom is a different beast for the land of pay cable shows. Byron Balasco — he of such procedurals as Without a Trace, Detroit 1-8-7, and FlashForward — wrote the script on spec. DirecTV’s third scripted series ever (not counting their role as savior of Friday Night Lights) and only the third show out of Endemol Studios, the show is very much a mix of experience and newer hands both behind the camera and in front of it. Balasco’s expertise in the world of MMA is sketchy at best, and before now he was better know as an executive producer or co-producer than a show runner. Even after taking all of this into account, the pilot is a more cohesive look at the damaged and problematic Kulinas and their extended Navy Street Gym family than it has any right to be.
The premiere doesn’t outright avoid clichés, with multiple characters falling immediately into standard depictions of drug addictions or violence. Lacking any further shading for motivations or pasts so early in the show, many of these reveals come off as an easy answer to where larger issues of rage stem from for these men. If not for the actors tasked with building emotion behind the eyes before finding a release, much of the episode would come off flat, but Matt Lauria, Nick Jonas, and Jonathan Tucker take the script’s potential and run with it right off the block. Lauria especially owns the screen in his multiple set pieces and as such, his character is immediately the most fascinating of the three fighters.
Focusing on the trio of current and former MMA fighters in the first hour is a smart move. Seeing relationships spiral out of a strong center is much more exciting than starting with everyone in different corners of the show and gradually intertwining as the season moves forward. Lauria’s Ryan Wheeler, fresh off a four-year stint in jail for an unknown crime, is captivating. Issues of rage and substance abuse plague his past as well as the betrayal and mistreatment of the gym and his former fiancée Lisa (Kiele Sanchez) once he found success in the UFC. Ryan is easily drawn to bouts of anger and violence and as much as he says he will try to stay straight, the knockout scene at his AA meeting gives a glimpse of someone who doesn’t know how to rein himself in when tempted. Lisa showing up to the AA meeting where he opens up about his past to the group is a tad too convenient, but all is forgiven once the camera closes in on Lauria’s face and he gives a wrenching monologue about past behavior.
Nick Jonas, while still green as a gritty cable drama actor, fits his character well as Nate, a young fighter filled with optimism straddling two sides of a broken family and saddled with bringing them all into the sun with his success in the ring. Nate doesn’t get much to do here on his own. If he’s at Navy Street, he’s part of the slim chance the gym has to stay afloat and an object for Ryan to focus on while he straightens his life out. If he’s at home, he is a reluctant witness as his older brother Jay (Tucker) gets strung out on heroin, has sex with an unnamed women, and more or less continues to self destruct. Nate is never anywhere besides home with Jay or at the gym with his dad (gym owner Alvey), with one notable exception: He leaves alone at the end of the episode and is rewarded with a beating that has nothing to do with his own actions. The revenge mugging is a literal projection of how he will never be able to get away from his family’s rage issues – a constant cycle of anger and violence affecting everyone like a virus – no matter how hard he tries. Incidentally, the one area where violence doesn’t pervade the conversation is when the guys are in the ring. Even though society frames MMA as a brutal and at times gory sport, here it is the best part of day to day life and the only place most are happy or even functional.
Adam Davidson’s direction here is gorgeous and off-kilter at all the right times. His depiction of Venice is no different than any other movie or show with sun bouncing off cars and palm trees lining the beach, a standard sort of “sunny LA grit” that has been used for years. This serves as a sort of blank palette background for the more colorful shots to pop, a benchmark off which to measure some venturesome angles and decision making. He shoots the climactic fight from mostly outside the ring — capturing the fight, the crowd, and the lights of the ballroom in almost every shot. Using the ceiling lights as a backdrop puts the audience in the minds of the fighters as they lay tangled in the ring, an off-kilter view of a mid-level hotel ballroom that symbolizes success at this stage of their fighting career. Davidson’s decision to focus on the Virgin Mary dashboard statuette while Nate’s unnamed assailants track him through the streets ramps up the tension for the viewer. Purposely keeping both the future victim and the thugs out of sight forces what is about to happen into the realm of the imagination, making it all the worse when it comes to fruition. The camera also never finds Nate’s face, instead focusing on his bike in the foreground and keeping his physical condition undisclosed until the next episode. A nasty trick, but an effective one.
Kingdom is building an environment of positivity with negative prospects on the outskirts when it easily could have chosen the opposite tack. Nate’s story is framed as a tandem mission to save the gym and to be a successful fighter, not as a one man quest to use MMA get out of a family that doesn’t always have his best interests at heart. MMA, and the far off prospects of UFC success, is the end all be all for Alvey, Jay, Ryan, Nate, and even Lisa, rather than a stepping stone to the next best thing.