First impression quiz: there’s a show called “Kingdom” starring Disney-turned-“Jealous” popstar Nick Jonas. There’s fighting involved, some family drama and a lot of sweat and muscles popping out of v-necks. If you’re imagining an amped-up version of “Camp Rock” with a “Fight Club” theme, I’m right there with you.
Thankfully, Audience Network’s “Kingdom” is a far cry from guitar riffs and teenage angst, despite Jonas’s presence. There’s a different kind of angst at Navy St., a mixed martial arts gym in Venice Beach — a fighter’s angst, driven by a terrifying will to both kill and support others.
Ringleader Alvey Kulina (Frank Grillo, “Warrior”) owns and runs the gym, now expanded since season one, with the help of his pregnant sometimes-girlfriend and talented manager, Lise (Kiele Sanchez, “The Purge: Anarchy”), who happens to be the ex-fiance of one of their best fighters, an ex-convict named Ryan (Matt Luria, “Friday Night Lights”). Joining Ryan in the ring are Alvey’s two sons, Jay (Jonathan Tucker, “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”) and Nate (Nick Jonas), who are fighting to win their father’s approval and support their troubled mother, Christina (Joanna Going, “The Tree of Life”), the estranged wife of Alvey who is haunted by a drug addiction and a past of prostitution.
While Christina works double shifts in a lifeless burger joint, her sons are paid to fight. Though the fighters’ job is destructive by definition, it steers them away — Jay especially — from even more dangerous hobbies, like drugs and crime. Their power in the ring and in society comes from their prestige, a solid record of wins over losses in strategically arranged matches. But their value falls when an opponent backs out of a fight, as Jay’s does in the season two premiere.
When the fight is cancelled, and with his pride hurt, Jay furiously turns to drinking and cocaine, waiving his responsibility to support his mother’s sobriety by the fact that she is working a double shift that day. During his drug-fueled rampage, Jay reveals the reality of fighting and what it means to him, in Freudian terms. Essentially, fighting is an outlet for repressed emotions: feelings of worthlessness in society, anger at his parents and himself, anxiety that he isn’t the role model for Nate that he wants to be. Jay’s emotions are bottled up without this outlet, forcing him to abuse drugs and alcohol to distract himself. But if his fights continue to cancel, Jay’s binges will worsen — a risk not to only his physical and mental health, but to his job status and family relationships.
Jay’s dynamic character, as both a brutal fighter and agonized son, parallels the show itself: where “Kingdom” could have strictly been a testosterone-pumped show about fighting, it rounds itself out with deep emotions and vulnerability, giving the characters something to fight for and the audience a reason to root for them.
Though the show is dominated by men, set in the overly masculine world of physical fighting, the women of the show are equally as ferocious. Though she doesn’t fight herself, Lise has an eye for talent in the ring and will stop at nothing to get who and what she wants. Christina, in some ways Lise’s counterpart, revels in her independence, though it often leads to dangerous choices. Joining them this season is Alicia Mendez (Natalie Martinez, “End of Watch”), a talented fighter who is recruited by Lise, giving a breath of badass girl power to the fight ring.
“Kingdom” came into the TV ring as an underdog. In the midst of family sitcoms and high-drama crime powerhouses, a small-network show about underground fighting that stars a teenage heartthrob is questionable at best. But with a one-two punch of moving drama and impressive acting, “Kingdom” might just be a knockout.