One of the oldest conundrums in the history of humanity is also one of its simplest: can someone truly change? Can someone change who they are so they can be someone with more appeal, and can it hold? If so, for how long before the band-aid becomes too wet to hold a past that is too relentless to let go? After all, we are born one way and evolve, but eventually hit a ceiling in our development.
Creator/writer Byron Balasco likes to sprinkle these bold blends of seasoning on his stories for AT&T's Original series, "Kingdom", and in resetting the MMA drama for its final season, he has brought that juicy ageless question into the center of the ring for introspection.
Season 3 begins with Frank Grillo's Alvey Kulina passed out on a beach in Venice. Talk about a guy who puts himself squarely on the highway to hell, and you have King Kulina. Holding only an award for Coach of The Year and a gun as padding for his beach bed, Alvey has clearly fallen on bad times.
Remember the guy running through the same beach during the pilot back in October of 2014? Alvey looked like the love child of Michael Corleone and King Arthur back then. Throw that guy down the stairs of despair and into the rabbit hole of incomplete tragedy, and you have Alvey 2.0, lost and found on a beach by two police officers. It takes assurance from a higher ranking officer for them to leave Alvey alone, but is this man ever truly alone?
Alvey's demons surround him constantly. He reminds me of Denis Leary's Tommy Gavin from the FXX series "Rescue Me". Alvey, like Tommy, is amazing at his job, but he's very bad at life. He slips normalcy's punch like he would an opposing fighter's jab in the ring, and the end of Season 2 found him back on his own again with the dissolution of his relationship with Lisa Prince (Kiele Sanchez, not related to Wonder Woman). Alvey is following a steady diet of bourbon for breakfast, protein shake for lunch, bourbon for dinner, and perhaps some bourbon and orange juice the next morning. When you mix in fighting into that mix and little else, you have a man lost inside himself.
Grillo plays this decrepit version of Alvey to a T, resisting the urge to gloss over the fact that this guy is punching himself harder than anyone else ever could. Having been labeled an "action hero" due to his recent cinematic adventures, people forget how good of an actor Grillo has become. As he said in an interview once, fighting makes him a better actor, but the truth is more bluntly distributed: playing a fighter who has fallen on hard times brings out the best in Grillo. Hardship is his ally, and if the Emmy's want to open their eyes, Grillo deserves recognition this year for his work.
What does Alvey need to get out of this self-imposed trap? A FIGHT.
Remember at the end of Season 2A when Kenny asked Alvey if he liked coaching or fighting better, and the answer came quickly. Fighting is what Alvey was born to do, and after the man spits the latest stomach rejected liquids out into a sink, Garo (the comically gifted Bryan Callen) arrives with an offer. Apparently, Garo's hard financial times have fallen on a smooth terrain with the arrival of "Arab money". They want to put MMA and King Beast on the map, and a legends fight is the door being kicked open. Garo wants Alvey, and no matter how these two feel about each other, the promoter knows how badly Alvey needs a reset. If not, he may sink completely into the hole he's dug.
Alvey ends up saying no to Garo's offer to help wash his hair in the shower (Callen's timing is impeccable), but he does cave and accept the idea of fighting again. The look on Grillo's face afterward says it all. It's like someone leaned over and blew dust off the man's shoulder. From the moment we laid eyes on Alvey in episode 1 knock out those two thugs in the street, there has been a countdown to his return to the cage. That clock is ticking a little faster in Season 3.
The newfound money bank Garo has found also connects to Ryan Wheeler (Matt Lauria, constantly steaming beneath the surface), who is dominating the world of MMA with four straight victories. Since beaten an emotionally broken Jay Kulina (Jonathan Tucker) at the end of Season 2, Ryan has everything in life..but his own home, a car that doesn't make bad noises, and a paycheck that rivals a top ranked fighter. The Arab investors may be able to help there, but not if Lisa talks extensively with UFC suits. As he prepares for another title defense, Wheeler also has to contend with a house stricken Keith (Paul Walter Hauser).
Apparently, even "fruity" sex offenders have to register, and since Keith didn't, he is on house arrest for the foreseeable future. There was a time when Keith was the quirky sidekick to Ryan, but after the near smashing of Alicia (Natalie Martinez, absent from Season 3 so far), the troubled man has taken a turn down a long dark road that I don't think holds a happy ending. Which is why Ryan is breaking off from his friend for fear of his own forgiving nature weighing him down.
When Ryan got out of prison, helping Keith get by was part of his penance. He got to do something good for a change for someone else, but how long does that last? Again, some people simply can't change. Will Ryan allow Keith to either bring him down, or at least pull out the true "beast" in him, that which could damage his flourishing career?
One of Balasco's 4,046 gifts as a writer and maker of chaos on screen is the ability lend credence to each and every subplot of his show. There's the main course of Alvey, Ryan, and his sons, but all the supporting tales and characters are never brushed over even in the slightest.
How about Tucker's Jay? Here is where the most change has occurred. Imagine placing a coat of paint on a wall that absolutely refuses to change colors, and moments after a fresh coat of a different color is applied, the old color breaks out. That is Jay Kulina, and any time this man is battling his own identity, Tucker gets to reach into his bag of tricks and blow us away.
A year after his loss to Ryan, Jay has dropped the fight game for a domesticated existence that includes a girlfriend, daughter, and real estate job. After extreme losses of each variety-physically in the ring and emotionally with Ava(Lisa Esco)-Jay has retreated to an entirely different planet of living. The beast still lurks below his surface, and when the owner of a home he's showing doesn't vacate the premises, you get to see that seething tension inside Jay's jaw line rattle a bit.
This man is playing house, and no, he is NOT happy. But he's trying and that counts for something.
Jay is dating an aspiring actress who may or may not know what this man has been through, but she doesn't know how far he's scrapped the bottom of the barrel. There should be a bet on how many episodes transpire before Jay blows up this good life that has been given to him, and I wouldn't know which number to guess. You want to root for Jay to succeed in life, but that tie he wears around his neck to work every day looks like it's strangling him.
Jay's biggest foe is identity; the ability to know what you are and how long you can fight it. Unlike Alvey, Jay is fighting it. Alvey knows what he is, and has embraced it this season. Jay is resisting, and it's only a matter of time before it begins to wear off. When Kenny asks Jay about a return to the ring before Ryan's fight, the color of his face reveals a man with some punches left in him.
With a potentially huge payday on the table, Ryan wins the fight by technical knockout after a first round scare that involves two illegal blows (dude, who was that other guy and why was he so petty and tiny?), but poor Nate Kulina (Nick Jonas) watches his fight fall apart two hours before the bell was set to ring.
It doesn't take a brain surgeon to figure out the reason because Kingdom's biggest ticking time bomb has been the slow reveal of Nate's sexuality to certain characters on the show. Jay knows and so do a couple others, but the majority still rests in the dark. Chief among them is Alvey and Garo, who control the man's future in the ring. This hurts because, before fight night, Nate has grown closer to Will (Jonathan Howard), and receives a key from the newfound love in his life.
What will Nate do with this latest setback, other than fume a bit? Jonas has never once tried to overplay the role, and that has benefited the slow reveal of his situation. Can Nate be himself completely or will he have to change his true self in order to enjoy a life in the ring? When Alvey was telling him about what it takes to be a fighter, sexuality never got into the conversation, which makes that eventual chat all the more intriguing.
Taking a page from the late Gregg Allman led Allman Brothers Band, Balasco decided to turn the lamp down low for the third season of Kingdom. Without knowing it would be the last one, Balasco has done what every great creator should, prepare a show like you live your life: as if it will be your last one. He's dropped extra loads of despair — emotionally and physically — on the main characters, and that will only make for gritty television that sheds juice like a 16-ounce filet mignon pulled halfway off the grill.
Can Alvey recover enough to fight? Will Ryan get paid, and is that enough for him to taste success? How long can Jay resist who he truly is in life? Will Nate sacrifice a piece of himself outside the ring to be successful in it? After lighting the wick on these questions during the first 30 hours of this brilliant evocative series, Balasco and the cast are set to answer them before they explode.
The next nine hours should be powerful, bittersweet fun. There are nine rounds left, and the fighters are only getting warmed up. Are you ready? Keep your head up, because Kingdom's third and final round is hitting hard.