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Opinion | Why Byron Balasco's 'Kingdom' will be the next 'Waco' for Netflix

Byron Balasco's show about an MMA family is on my Mount Rushmore of TV shows, but it never got the proper attention with DirecTV.
Credit: DirecTV, Audience Network

ST. LOUIS — It's always a nice thing when great television finds the proper home.

Three years after it left television screens after a short three season run, "Kingdom," originally produced and distributed by DirecTV, will debut on Netflix on July 1. Set your calendars because this isn't a show you want to miss. There's plenty of literature from my hands on the net about this show, with this piece being one of the last.

There's also this, this, this, and oh yeah, this too. I was the unofficial Midwest rep for the "Kingdom," telling anyone who would listen. But let me break it down for you more simply today:

If you are an MMA or fighting fan, this is the show for you. 

If you are in need of a juicy television drama, this is the show for you. 

If you are simply a person who doesn't want their time wasted once they click "play," this is the show for you. 

Here's the thing. DirecTV severely dropped the ball when they marketed (or some version of this) the show. Next to nobody knew about this when it started its run on Oct. 8, 2014, and a small amount got to know it before the brilliant series finale on Aug. 2, 2017. I would mention it and the person would shoot me a confused yet vaguely interested look. After explaining it and how good it was, the next important question would be in regards to the show's location, and that led to bigger issues. Most people don't have DirecTV's streaming network, so the show's reach was limited. Endemol Studios stepped in, which helped get it to AT&T for a stretch, but DirecTV still retained distribution control in the end.

Adding insult to insult, the entire series wasn't released on disc for quite some time. It finally reached iTunes in its entirety back in September, but Netflix is a different beast. A prime example is the Paramount Network series, "Waco," which premiered on the popular streaming platform earlier this year. Suddenly, people were talking about a show that was released years ago. A majority of the Netflix customer base probably thought it was originally produced there--but it wasn't. "Waco" simply found a bigger audience on Netflix, because that's what competently made television shows do.

"Kingdom" will do the same. When the humidity and sunshine becomes too much next month, settle inside on the couch with a stiff drink and Byron Balasco's fighting opus. Poignantly captured and ferociously entertaining, Balasco did his homework and found the right players when assembling this team. Many people may know Frank Grillo from his cup of coffee in The Marvel Cinematic Universe or "The Purge" film series, but his best work resides here as Alvey Kulina, a former MMA champ trying to mentor and guide his sons while fighting off the demons that crowd his head.

You may have just seen Jonathan Tucker in Showtime's "City on a Hill," but he's freakishly great here as Jay Kulina, Alvey's oldest and a chaotic persona that's capable of defeating an opponent in the octagon and getting arrested. Tucker brought it all to the role. Matt Lauria is a face you may know from NBC's "Friday Night Lights," but he created a battlefield of emotions with Ryan Wheeler, an MMA champion who just spent four years in prison, and also used to date Alvey's girlfriend, Lisa Prince (Kiele Sanchez, who ran the streets with Grillo in "The Purge: Anarchy").

The women on this show are something fierce. Sanchez may seem like the mandatory male lead's girlfriend in the first few scenes but the actress leans into a sizable role here that allows her to tango with Grillo and Lauria quite often. Prince co-owns the gym with Alvey and is dating him, but fears that she has nothing truly for herself. So over the course of the show, you see Sanchez's Lisa become more powerful and independent.

Playing the mother of the Kulina boys and Alvey's ex-wife, Joanna Going really stepped into the tricky role of someone whose past helped shape the show's present but also isn't going to depart too quietly. Like Sanchez, Going's role evolved over the 40 episodes instead of stalling out.

I didn't know who Paul Walter Hauser was before this show and maybe, that is a bittersweet but good thing. Hauser's Keith came into the show as Wheeler's roommate in a house for parolees, but the characters become linked for the rest of the show. Keith is an ex-con with a dark past yet owner of a warm heart who finds a lifeline in Ryan, and the effect goes back the same way for Lauria's character. He challenges us in various ways over the show's tenure, in unexpected and thought-provoking ways.

Don't forget about Nick Jonas' innocent yet fiery Nate Kulina. From the early moments of the first season, viewers will quickly find out Nate is a closeted gay fighter. No one knows on the show, not even Jay or Alvey. It's this ticking time bomb, and how it plays out in subsequent seasons, that gave Balasco's show another route to being powerful and timely. Please don't sleep on Jonas either due to his more prominent day job as a singer. He's perfect here.

Mac Brandt, Bryan Callen, Juliette Jackson (can we get more Shelby in a spin-off??!), and real life ex-fighters like Joe Stevenson fill out the cast. Natalie Martinez (who co-starred with Grillo in 2012's "End of Watch") has a very potent arc on the series. Matt Hughes has a great cameo in the final season. Everyone here is aces. They all create full-bodied characters with layers of guilt and stress.

On this show, the octagon isn't the worst place to be for these characters. It's outside in the real world, where you can't punch out a problem or grapple on the ground with your past. While the fights are thrilling, this show dives into the issues and chaos that swallows these warriors up when they leave the arena.

I loved that Balasco tackled touchy yet important issues in life. Jonas' closeted gay fighter gets full story threads to tell that sad but true tale. It's not just a gimmick in a few episodes. Sanchez suffered a real life tragedy and it's written into the show in all of its raw intensity. Tucker delivers most likely the speech of the century in the finale, calling out the vindictive athletes in the world of sports and many of its consumers who look down on gay athletes. Grillo's Alvey does some despicable things in this series (especially towards the end); he never becomes the typical protagonist on a show who gets boring. Nothing is boring or out of bounds here.

Balasco didn't just want to tell a story about fighters. He wanted to tell an honest story about troubled people who happen to be involved in fighting. What a person fights away from the ring will always be more dangerous than what stands in front of them inside the octagon. Balasco and his writing team never lost sight of that notion. The doubts, constant violence, and mental deception that play out in a fighter's life.

It goes in some very dark places, but always rewards the viewer with an ending that ties up the events of that season. While it was initially greenlit for a fourth season before being cancelled abruptly, Balasco's series finale didn't leave fans stranded. There was a resolute and quite fitting final image and moment.

Will there be fresh episodes now that the series is at Netflix? Never say never, but I'll say without hesitation that it's unlikely. Netflix may only have distribution rights, not rights to produce new episodes. Grillo has worked with Netflix multiple times recently with his WarParty Productions such as "Wheelman," "Point Blank," and "Fight World." He may hold some sway there, but I would be surprised if a fourth season saw the light of day. I put nothing past Netflix, but I wonder if Balasco and the cast would return to a story put to rest three years ago. What is more likely? A possible movie that catches fans of the show back up with the characters. One and done. Who knows? We shall see.

For now, go enjoy the series on July 1. Soak it in. If you're a big fan, go rewatch it. Here's how good I think it is. If I had a Mount Rushmore for television shows, "Kingdom" would be on it.

That's it. That's how I end this article.

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