If past history is an indicator, the Audience Network series Kingdom never should have made it out of its first season, let alone into its third. But as the mixed martial arts drama counts down to its final episode this year, it leaves the TV universe as a series right up there with the other stalwarts of this Golden Age of television. And the reasons are simple.
First, MMA is the backdrop, but the stories being told can hit home to anybody.
Second, the characters aren’t cardboard cutouts or walking, talking clichés.
Third, the show’s creator, Byron Balasco, got MMA right, and that was his goal from the start.
“It was the most important thing, to be honest, because I had seen all the same things and I never felt like anybody had really shown the life and what it is,” he said. “I wanted this to come out and I wanted fighters to love it. I wanted it to feel like part of the experience for them and you can’t do that if any of it rings false. Fighters, coaches and everybody around the sport is very protective about what they do because they’ve probably seen it bastardized too many times and maybe exploited, with the true story not being told properly.”
We’ve all seen it, boxing or MMA films that have a great story with fight scenes that are just not believable, or an unbelievable story coupled with unbelievable fight scenes. But Kingdom isn’t like that at all, and part of its success is its medium.
“One of the great advantages we had was that television as a medium really lends itself to telling these stories in a proper way because you have time to really go into the characters’ lives and find these small moments that really make them human and make it feel real and emotionally resonant,” said Balasco.
And as a longtime MMA fan, he went to one of the sport’s great sources when he began creating the show.
“The first guy that I got close to was Greg Jackson, so I went to Albuquerque and spent a lot of time with him, and he was a consultant on the show,” he recalls. “And through Greg, we got hooked up with Joe ‘Daddy’ Stevenson and Joe was on set with us every single day. I was a fan and knew a good amount about the sport, but then once you really get in with these guys and start listening to them, that stuff you really just learn by osmosis, and those guys are there every day to help us out. So that stuff takes care of itself because you’re living it.”
With the MMA part of the show squared away, it was off to flesh out the characters and their stories, and if you’ve watched one episode or all of them, you know that Balasco was able to work his magic there too, and it hit home not just with viewers, but the real fighters who work regularly on it.
“The stuff about everybody’s lives was really just an exploration of people in general,” he said. “I just think that perhaps nobody had really taken the time to look at fighters as people that have lives and have hopes and dreams and losses, a need for love and family and to survive. So by exploring that, it really gave us that feeling of authenticity in these men and women’s lives. My favorite thing would be when Joe or some other fighter would run up to me during an emotional scene we were shooting and they would have goosebumps or tears in their eyes because it was something that was close to something that had happened in their lives. But that’s really just a matter of writing about people because I think a lot of things fighters go through are universal. It’s the human struggle. I think that’s what helped the show resonate with fighters and also people who weren’t necessarily fight fans.”
That’s the real victory of Kingdom. Of course MMA fans will be on board, especially given how the sport is given respectful treatment throughout, but the fact that it has reached people with no prior interest in fighting, as well as the MMA community, is something that Balasco will always take with him.
“It means everything,” he said. “It’s been a great pleasure this whole experience with how rabid our fans are and how much they care about these people. They’ve really seemed to have taken ownership of them and live and breathe them. It’s a moving and very humbling to experience as a writer and showrunner. It’s been the greatest thing and I’ll always be grateful for it.”