Kingdom, the heavy-hitting drama series that brought Nick Jonas’ gay-icon status to a fever pitch, is back. Its third and final season is just around the corner, and it’s time to discuss how a show about Mixed Martial Arts became one of the best stories on television.
Consider Jonas’ Nate Kulina, an MMA fighter who spent much of last season battling tragic losses inside and out of the cage, all while finding the strength to come out to his brother Jay (expertly played by a Jonathan Tucker, channeling his innermost Christian Bale in The Fighter).
Nate struggles with trauma, grief, and sexual identity in trying to discover his authentic self, providing a vastly different narrative than the conventional athlete-hero story often seen in television or film. This representation feels tangibly important, especially as more and more real-life athletes chose to come out publicly, including MMA fighter Amanda Nunes or Olympic pole vaulter Shawn Barber, who came out just this Tuesday.
Beyond Nate, there’s a pretty tangled web of relationships spun around Navy St. gym and its founder, Alvey Kulina (Frank Grillo). At its core, Kingdom has always been about these relationships, and deeply invested in delving into how one’s personal demons can impact those close to them. But don’t call them anti-heroes; the men and women of Kingdom deal with topics of incarceration, addiction, sex work, and violence with a lot of honesty and without glorifying them.
Perhaps the most predictable feature of this show is just how testosterone-heavy the world of MMA can be. Kingdom brings seriously high intensity to its action and fighting sequences, just not necessarily in every episode. Plus by now it’s no secret to fans that the actors are in peak physical condition, which lends itself well to the show’s realism.
That said, Kingdom’s two female leads — Lisa and Christina (Kiele Sanchez and Joanna Going) — are just as powerful as their male counterparts. With Lisa continuing to take a lead role in managing Navy St., Kingdom continues to unpack notions of masculinity and femininity within the competitive world of Mixed Martial Arts and beyond.
Heading into the new season, show creator Byron Balasco has promised to keep his storylines real while delving deeper into MMA’s foray into mainstream popularity. Speaking to reporters at the Television Critics Association in January, he commented that the popularization of the sport “affords our characters new opportunities that maybe they wouldn’t have had before,” adding that, “[t]hey're living on the edge, and it's an extreme way to live, and it's an extreme, violent world. I don't think that will ever change.”
Perhaps this means there could even more tragedy ahead?