ST. LOUIS — One of the saddest things in life is a waste of talent.
The next saddest thing is a great television show being unavailable to potential viewers.
Kingdom, which made its home on DirecTV, went off the air more than two years ago after three seasons and 40 episodes. That has been rectified this weekend, as the show in all its glory is now available on iTunes. You can enjoy this gem of a series anywhere, and trust me, the money spent is well worth it. Byron Balasco's authentically powerful world consisted of damaged souls cascading around the arena of Mixed Martial Arts, lives unfit for a soul unless it was tortured and spiraling out of control. This show hits hard and stays with you.
Frank Grillo, a fighter in front of and away from the screen, led a dedicated cast including Jonathan Tucker, Nick Jonas, Matt Lauria, Kiele Sanchez, Joanna Going, Mac Brandt, Bryan Callen, Paul Walker Hauser, and so many more vital players. Grillo's Alvey Kulina, a former cage legend now training his two sons (Tucker and Jonas), one volatile to a normal life and the other perhaps too raw for the brutality of a fighter's life. Lauria's Ryan Wheeler, fresh out of prison with a need to impose his will, comes into Alvey's world and adds some lead to the protein shake of Navy Street, where all a majority of the action takes place.
Sanchez and Going played the two women who did their best to contain the hurricane that is Alvey Kulina, and each of them brought a power to roles that could have been phoned in. Hauser's Keith was a loyal friend to Wheeler, but one that came with hazard signs, both noticeable and unseen.
On the surface, one would say the show was an conventional look at the life of a fighter. They would have it all wrong. While some of Balasco's best work as a writer and curator of madness came inside the octagon with various members of the cast, including Natalie Martinez on a season-long run, the best parts of this series took place far away from a place with rules, referees, and standards of practice. Kingdom dealt with what fighters battled outside the ring, problems much larger than a fierce knee or hard right cross.
Believe me when I tell you this is far from just a show about fighting. Alvey may be a ring legend to some, but in more personal spaces, he's an alcoholic neanderthal with an authority complex. Someone who still has a hunger to teach but an urge to fight as well.
Kingdom is also the first show to honestly discuss homosexuality in the fight world, as Jonas' character, Nate Kulina, was a closeted gay fighter for the majority of the series. The well-known singer, who just enjoyed a birthday, was new to acting when he took the role. It was risky casting, but Jonas knocked it out of the park, brilliantly conveying Nate's insecurities and troubles amid success in the cage. He shares scenes with Grillo that will reverberate for me years from now.
Tucker's Jay Kulina is a Joker of all trades, someone with the gift of competition who keeps kicking over gasoline fires into his own path. He's more than someone with a drug problem or drinking issue; Jay was simply a man apart who found his way home from isolation from his father by finding a love for his brother and helping his journey. Tucker is marvelous.
Lauria, who people knew from Friday Night Lights, was a ball of fury as Wheeler. A boiling pot of anxiety who was thrust into the role of fighter because no other job would allow him to punish himself and starve off the urge to shut off the lights.
Going, playing a mother struggling with drug addiction as well as a creeping sensation that her kids were too old to be controlled, took on a role that grew up like a tree. At first, it was simple, but over the 40 episodes, grew into something potent and relatable.
Grillo, someone who is no stranger to letting his hands go wherever he breathes, built a muscle car of sadness, guilt, and rage in Alvey. Calling his work Emmy-worthy is like calling a steak juicy; it's just the beginning. He's the first person you see and the last person you see in the series. It's his actions and words that move the needle on the plot. With a lesser performer, the show fails.
Balasco's show was relentless in telling stories that connected emotionally and opened conversations about our own society and its setbacks. How people can rot away from the inside while summoning the courage to live another day. Like I said, much more than MMA and fighting.
Don't get me wrong. The fights were stunningly choreographed and filmed, bringing the intensity and messiness of the world of mixed martial arts to the head of the table. I gained a whole new appreciation for the sport watching these scenes of blood, sweat, tears, and more blood.
All of this is now available to you for the price of three lattes at Starbucks. Skip the fancy drink and settle in for the ride of your life. I could complain all year about DirecTV not giving Balasco and company a promised fourth season, and how the story should have continued. There's a giant parking lot for me to fill my anger with there.
But instead I'll tell you to soak in and appreciate what was given, which is 40 wickedly moving hours of television. Paddy McKinley's work behind the camera, especially in the series finale, "Lie Down in the Light," is one of my favorite episodes of television of all time. Please, try not to cry when Tucker's Jay gives a certain speech in a ring, or when Grillo's Alvey sheds tears like a gorilla letting out a slow cry.
Powerful is the word here. This show will break your heart and it back together. Don't wait. As Brandt would say, show some self-respect and binge Kingdom this weekend.