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'Kingdom': A great show that died too soon

When I am asked what makes a great television show, my answer is simple: give me something that entertains me, empowers me, and something I need more of immediately. A unique pleasure. Kingdom was all of that.


Imagine a big juicy Porterhouse steak sitting on a plate. Some people eat chicken, but steaks are for serious eaters. You attack it, taking bites big and small, and then you stop. You suddenly get up and walk away from the table, leaving a half-eaten steak sitting on a lonely table. No one else can eat it, because you ordered it and it belongs to you. But you are leaving it to die a slow cold refrigerated death.

AT&T, along with DirecTV and Endemol Studios, let a great television show in Kingdom go too soon. This wonderfully complex and multi-faceted MMA drama was the big steak sitting on a plate, waiting to be devoured by its fans. There was plenty of juice left on the plate after Season 3's finale culminated with Frank Grillo's Alvey Kulina winning the Legends fight before collapsing into a bar for whiskey and contemplation.

Let's start with a simple question: why cancel a show that doesn't have a big budget and has a growing fanbase?

Kingdom attracted new eyes every week and each season collected a new wave of critics that suddenly couldn't get enough of this show. Some shows burst onto the scene, flip the table over, fizzle out, and have to pick that table back up to put it back in its proper place. Who really wanted thirteen rounds of Grey's Anatomy or four different Law and Orders?

I understand there are certain networks that can't gather 4-5 series and line them up in a given calendar year. Money plays a big part and assembling a cast and creative team willing to put together something unique that sets you apart from the repetitive network shows is key. I get it, rah, rah, rah!

But, AT&T bought DirecTV's slate and then aired it on the Audience Network, and later on a DirecTV Now app was developed. While Kingdom never got the distribution it deserved (where is it on ITunes, Netflix, DVD's in stores) until late (you can find it on Amazon and in certain Walmart locations now for purchase), the platforms for which you could view were slowly coming together.

So why cancel it? According to multiple stars on the show, a fourth season was on the table and ready to shoot before the sudden cancellation this summer. And for the record, when a show airs its last episode and isn't coming back for another, it is indeed a cancellation. That's how Collider, Deadline, and Variety all spin it.

This is a terrible decision for several reasons. First, the show had plenty of storytelling to produce. Creator Byron Balasco's fighter still had enough legs for a few more rounds.

If you haven't watched Kingdom yet or think I am talking about a sorcerer video game, head to Walmart or subscribe DirecTV right this minute and show some self-respect. Watch this show. Forget showering, buy some bourbon and steak, and just sit down for 40 hours. If you are mad about Game of Thrones being gone, get sucked into the life of the Kulina family and their very own nerve center, Navy Street. If you think the Arrested Development family was dysfunctional, imagine if they could throw a punch and had a six pack along with great writing.

Second, the budget for the series couldn't have been that high. You had a handful of locations and a gym was the setting for 50 percent of the show. A gym that functions as an MMA gym when the show wasn't being produced. Sometimes, a show can't go on due to budget issues and location problems. Game of Thrones is filmed in three different countries with a cast of thousands and costs over 100 million dollars. Kingdom couldn't have broke the 20 million mark.

Third, the cast and crew were all still invested. Sometimes, an actor or two will depart and the show slowly falls apart. Maybe the creator wants to chase another story or doesn't have the time to push forward. That was not the case. Balasco was ready to go. To him, every season represented a chapter in these people's lives, so there was more ground to cover. Grillo, Jonathan Tucker, Matt Lauria, Kiele Sanchez, and Joanna Going were all ready to return.

Heck, to Sanchez, filming Kingdom helped her get through a highly tumultuous period in her life. The cast wasn't a group of mercenaries working for a check. They had grown into a family with one simple goal: create a great show that has an effect on people's lives. Tucker and Nick Jonas became best friends during the past three years. Relationships were built, which is something that doesn't happen on every show. Remember when Isaiah Washington literally had to be written out of Grey's Anatomy due to sexually discriminating remarks made about his castmate, T.R. Knight, who would leave the show for the same reason. Kingdom had none of that nonsense.

Lastly, it's just a great show, receiving high marks from any critic who gave it a little time. Samantha Highfill of Entertainment Weekly may be the only person on the planet who loved the show more than I did and wrote thousands of words every single episode. Deadline, Collider, TV Fanatic, and other websites adored it and thought the third season was a high point. Great shows aren't told when to end; the creator chooses when to close up shop.

David Chase knew when to end Sopranos. Aaron Sorkin knew when to end Newsroom. Jonathan Tropper knew when to end Banshee. You get the picture. Balasco didn't know when he finished writing and filming "Lie Down in the Light" that he would be finishing a series. While kind and supportive in interviews last month, once could hence that there were some disgruntled souls on this set.

What made Kingdom so great? You couldn't anything like it on television. Show me another show about fighters staring down bigger threats outside of the ring than the ones in the cage. Do we really need another cop show where someone is dirty and someone else knows that particular cop is dirty? Do we need more TV show remakes of movies? Kingdom explored the psychosis that every fighter experiences when they choose to put it all on the line for a living.

Grillo's work was so Emmy worthy that the award circuit get an eye roll from me now when nominations come out. Tony Soprano with a better haircut. In Alvey Kulina, he created an anti-hero that you deeply cared about, but knew if a character got too close, they would both combust. The performance had teeth and a bite that left a haunting feeling after each season. Each season of Kingdom ends with Grillo's old lion of a man waging war against his demons in an empty room. Whether it was shadow boxing in a gym or sadly sulking in a locker room after a fight, the door was closed with Alvey.

Here's the thing: we barely got to know his past and what led him to Navy Street. That could have been explored in Season 4. What about Lauria's Ryan Wheeler's violent past and how he wrecked it all, going to prison and losing the prime years of his life. What about a batch of episodes exploring Tucker's Jay as he contemplates a return to the ring or a search for his girlfriend and daughter?

Could Alvey and Christina (Going) get back together? Will he pound the despicable Cody (Chris Coy) into a bloody pulp when he finds out how he treats Christina, the first love of his life?

What about Sanchez's Lisa and Alvey? How will she do being a boss in a world of men? So much meat left on the bone here.

What's the best thing about Kingdom? It created truly formidable women. The ladies packed as much of a punch as the men on this show, destroying the cliched TV land of singular male or female heroes. Natalie Martinez got a great character arc in Season 2 as a troubled fighter. Sanchez and Going were the backbones for the men on the show. The only show that treated the ladies as equal: Cinemax's Banshee. Balasco respected the dual side of the fighter's life. He didn't have to, but he did.

I'm just mad right now. I look around and there are decent shows, but none of them are as great or layered as Kingdom. Before you disagree, watch the frigging show. Don't just hear the words "MMA" and "fighting-and get turned off. The show is at its best when the mind is more bloody than the face.

I'll miss watching Tucker work his magic with Jay Kulina. A joker of a man who covered up a big heart with a band of mischief that only kept certain people at a distance. Only the strong were allowed in close. Tucker is a crackerjack talent of immense ability. He didn't hold back in showing us every shade of grey Jay had to offer.

I'll miss Lauria's ticking timebomb of a fighter trapped in his own misery. For Wheeler, everything external can't control or mask the internal anguish he feels. A man who put his own father in a wheelchair has no comfortable nights. Lauria made you feel everything going on with Ryan. Wow.

I'll miss being surprised by Jonas. I had the same reaction Grillo first had when finding out he had a shot at the show: bewilderment. But that's show business for you. It is where magic happens and talent is realized. Jonas did a lot without a lot of dialogue. I hear he can sing a little.

I'll miss Sanchez's thunder. Lisa was stretched between Alvey, Ryan, and Navy Street. A tough flower that weathered many seasons of torment and blossomed in the end. I wanted to see Lisa's rise through King Beast. Sanchez suffered a personal tragedy in her life and used it as fuel for her portrayal of Lisa in the second phase of Season 2. The tears you see on her face are genuine.

I think all the tears were genuine. People bled for this show. Actor's like Going, who had to shine a light on a troubled soul in Christina Kulina. A former drug addict and prostitute trying to do right by her sons, Christina battled the worst of the worst and we never got to see much of it. There was much left to tell about her life, but Going made you get attached as the episodes flew by. She was a fly in the ointment of a few characters, but ended up being a savior for the men in her life.

I'm not forgetting about Mac Brandt's Mac Sullivan. There's a whole spinoff show in this Redwood beast. His scenes with Tucker during the latter stages of Season 2 are as tense as any scene on the show.

Bryan Callen deserves an HBO comedy hour to showcase his skills. A guy I first laughed uncontrollably at in The Hangover, Callen created quite the comical shark in Garo. I liked the way he supported Lisa in the end though. First class work from Callen the whole way.

Paul Walter Hauser's Keith was a heartbreaker, but played so honestly. Lina Esco, Mark Consuelos, and Kirk Acevedo were torches thrown inside Navy Street, but they were all phenomenal. Even Adam Shapiro's greasy journalist was memorable. Andre Royo (The Wire) shared great scenes with Grillo. MC Gainey had a powerful arc with Lauria during Season 2.

Everybody left a dent on Kingdom, a show that died too young. A series that deserved more time to explore the world that these characters struggled in.

You don't let a group like this drift away with more left in the tank.

Need a show with thrills? Watch Kingdom.

Do you like some violence and sex thrown in with the chaos? Watch Kingdom.

Great acting and writing? Kingdom.

Ready for a shock or two? Kingdom.

This show was brave, exploring the rough areas of the fight world that 99 percent of showrunners could not properly display without producing something familiar and tired.

When I am asked what makes a great television show, my answer is simple: give me something that entertains me, empowers me, and something I need more of immediately. A unique pleasure. Kingdom was all of that. A bold dose of entertainment.

Now, there is no Kingdom. Sure, I can go back and relive the 40 episodes, but what then? Nothing.

I'm mad about that. Sad. I wish there was a way to get more.

I'd fight someone for it.