If you are going to ask people to donate their free time to your brand of make believe, the product better be great. It has to be unique and original. Byron Balasco's MMA series on The Audience Network, Kingdom, is wholly original and stuffed with heart clinching story lines that are both authentic and entertaining.
A show about fighters where the actual fighting takes a backseat to the outside the ring drama. It's the faceless demons that compel the characters to smash themselves into a thousand pieces in Balasco's world. Whether it's Frank Grillo's old lion Alvey Kulina, keeping his soul intact by training young fighters and staying close to the cage. Matt Lauria's Ryan Wheeler and Jonathan Tucker's Jay Kulina like to douse themselves in flames, but Kiele Sanchez's Lisa Prince is a strong woman attracted to dangerous men. Nick Jonas may be a singer's name to you, but watch him tear into the unfortunate condition of Nate Kulina.
There's so much going on during every episode that I had to get on the phone and speak with Balasco Tuesday afternoon about tonight's Season 2 finale. The result was a relentless discussion that didn't produce any blood or require bandages, but wet the lips for what is still to come on this AT&T series.
Buffa: In Season 2, these characters have been unable to escape their true nature. These characters need to struggle.
Balasco: Exactly. That's their lot in life.
Buffa: When I think of Jonathan Tucker's Jay, I think of a line from the Derek Cianfrance film, The Place Beyond The Pines. "You'll ride like lightning and crash like thunder." It's a riveting character to watch. How is it to write for Tucker?
Balasco: It's a lot of fun to write. It's pure emotion. He runs on pure emotion. As a writer, it can be very cathartic. Trying to imagine where Tucker is going to take it is fun.
Buffa: Grillo's Alvey is wonderfully imperfect and makes decisions that hurt people, but we can't stop watching him. He doesn't shy away from a crash.
Balasco: There's an expectation that these characters we see on TV need to be likable or fit in somehow. They will tamp down their true selves. Alvey isn't capable of that. The self destructive choices he makes are in all of us. He just doesn't have the filter to mask himself.
Buffa; Grillo throws all of himself into it and it's one of those once in a lifetime born to play it performances.
Balasco: We are so ingrained in these people now that we can really explore this deeper thing without wondering if Alvey would do this or not. Frank really owns the character in a way that makes it feel real.
Buffa: Kingdom doesn't shy away from touchy subjects and one of the story lines this season blends real life and fiction with Kiele Sanchez and her character Lisa Prince dealing with the loss of a child in pregnancy. Did you put the ball in her court and go from there? How did that situation unfold?
Balasco: It's well documented what happened. She and I decided that this is real life and it's an important story to tell. There's no sense in sanitizing it in any way not just for Kiele and her character but other women that have gone through something like this. It's not pretty and it's difficult. It should be explored that way.
Buffa: Most shows would gloss over it, but Kingdom sits down and gets dirty with it. Her work is so honest.
Balasco: Exactly. Kiele was extraordinary. It was a very powerful experience to make it on set. I'll never forget it.
Buffa: One of things a Kingdom addict can do is revisit past episodes. I've dived back into Season 1 and find a thread that won't die in Ryan and Lisa. Is there hope for these two to reconnect?
Balasco: I don't know if these are two people who can be together. They will always be in each other's lives. They were together a long time ago. I don't know if they are what the other person needs right now. I'm not sure if there is a compelling future for them to be with each other.
Buffa: In classic Kingdom style, this season hasn't been about the big clashes between Jay and Ryan. It's been more about what they deal with outside the ring. Do you find more of your stories drifting in that direction, away from the Octagon? The fights are great, but these fighters battle deeper issues when they are in plain clothes.
Balasco: That's always been the point of the show since the beginning. The fights themselves won't be that interesting if you don't drag into the ring everything these characters are dealing with and project what will happen after the fight. If you try to make it all about the combat, it won't have any heft or feel empty. If you want that, you'll go watch a real fight.
Buffa: Ava, played so well by Lina Esco, is sort of a kicked over can of gasoline this season. Was she written as someone that existed as an elevator shaft for Jay to fall down?
Balasco: You could say that Jay was the elevator shaft that existed for Ava to fall down. I think the instinct is for people to get mad at Ava, but Jay is complacent in it too. They were the worst two people to find each other. They numbed each other's pain but it wasn't sustainable.
Buffa: The hanging thread throughout the seasons has been the friendship between Ryan and Keith(Paul Walter Hauser) and this past week it approached a breaking point. This makes a new problem going forward.
Balasco: You can't really take care of another adult. You can take care of a pet or kid. It's hard to maintain caring for someone who is a grown man in that sense. They are going to have to figure out what the future holds for their friendship. How long does Ryan stick around?
Buffa: Natalie Martinez and Alicia Mendez is an interesting Season 3 conundrum. Her sister is dead and she is going to Greg Jackson's camp. Can Kingdom fans expect to see her in the future?
Balasco: The fight world is a pretty small one. I would always imagine fighters coming in and out of each other's lives. She is definitely still floating around our world. How often is up in the air right now. I haven't figured out how next season is going to be laid out just yet.
Buffa: Wendy Moniz Grillo has been a highlight this season, reconnecting on screen with her off screen husband Frank for the first time since The Guiding Light. Is it different directing a real life couple on set or is just a couple of actors?
Balasco: On set, it's just two actors. I know Wendy well. They are great together. It's just two actors. It's a lot of fun.
Buffa: She's a typical Kingdom lady. Tough and immovable. This show has plenty of strong females to balance the testosterone of the males.
Balasco: They are living in a difficult world as well.
Buffa: I asked Matt(Lauria) about the idea of a character teaching an actor more about himself. Has writing these characters taught you more about yourself?
Balasco: I can't say anything specific. This show lends itself to helping you work stuff out. You are always bringing your life and what you are wrestling with into the show. It's very torturous. It can be difficult on the people around you. Being able to create anything is a gift. It keeps you sane.
Buffa: When does filming begin on Season 3?
Balasco: We start shooting in mid November. I'm writing it right now and we shoot in mid November.
Balasco is a writer who hits the viewer where it hurts and where an honesty and truth can transcribe an otherwise normal television viewing experience. Kingdom is elevated by his work and is relentless when it comes to pushing its characters and stories into the uncomfortable areas that this platform usually avoids. If you aren't watching it yet, there's truly something missing in your life.
Kingdom's Season 2B finale premieres on AT&T's Audience Network Wednesday night at 8 p.m. and it is something Kingdom fans shouldn't miss and the casual observer should consider chasing.