There’s so much machismo coursing through DirecTV’s “Kingdom,” you could get testosterone poisoning just from watching it.
Characters brawl, ball women and kick the crap out of each other in this new series from creator Byron Balasco, a long-time fan of UFC-style mixed martial arts. Set in Venice, not far from Muscle Beach, it shows a grittier side of that seaside community than most Hollywood concoctions.
Let’s just say it’s a world Gloria Steinem would not like to inhabit.
But if you can handle a pounding first episode — and a seedy demimonde rife with drug use and casual misogyny — there’s promising drama in episodes ahead.
The agro drama takes place in and around the Navy St. gym run by former MMA fighter Alvey (Frank Grillo). Alvey’s got two fighter sons — screw-up Jay (“Parenthood” star Jonathan Tucker) and promising Nate (Nick Jonas, looking buff) — not to mention money problems, as his girlfriend and gym manager Lisa (Kiele Sanchez) often does.
Nate is training for a big fight when former MMA destroyer Ryan Wheeler (“Friday Night Lights” star Matt Lauria) gets sprung from jail. Ryan wants to help out at the gym, but there’s a hitch: He and Lisa used to be an item before he lost it on drugs.
Lisa doesn’t want him around, but Alvey can’t say no to a fellow fighter. Besides, he suspects Ryan’s not really done with fighting — and that might represent a business opportunity for him.
One of the things “Kingdom” does best is to depict mixed motivations of its characters. Alvey can be a softy, but he loves fighting and competition, so he nudges Ryan to tap into his violent side even though Ryan’s not sure he can handle it. There’s a certain danger and inevitability to the enterprise.
Alvey has his own identity issues now that he’s no longer competing, and, like Tony Soprano before him, is seeing a shrink.
“Most guys run from fights, because they don’t want the answer to the inevitable question they whisper to themselves: Am I one of the weak? Am I one of the strong? Where do I line up in the pecking order of it all?” he tells his shrink in a soliloquy that could serve as the show’s manifesto. “Fighters need that. It lifts them up; it feeds them. It’s the truth they’ve got to have.
“I think that’s what’s fucking me up,” he confesses. “I don’t have that in my life anymore.”
Instead, Alvey channels his energy into training other fighters, dishing out tough love and Zen instruction. “Relax. Breathe,” he tells his fighting charges moments after breaking their chops.
Grillo, a former boxer with credits in “The Warrior” and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” is strong as Alvey, a man with his own past drug use that now seems to be mostly keeping it clean, and trying to get his sons to do the same.
Jonas, the former band boy singer, does well as the quiet fighter, but Lauria is especially convincing as Ryan, a man of coiled energy that could explode again. Any time he’s in a challenging situation, the possibility hangs in the air.
Balasco doesn’t shy away from depicting a seedy world that would make a network exec blanch: There are scenes of gang violence and women being treated roughly, plus plenty of reckless behavior under the influence.
Jay’s a particular handful; he stages a dubious intervention for his prostitute mother (Joanna Going) a few episodes in.
“Kingdom” is not a place for delicate flowers, in other words. After an exceedingly violent first episode, it eases up a notch, and the show is better for it. It still won’t win plaudits from feminists, but that wasn’t the intent.
Balasco, a veteran of “Without a Trace” and “Huff,” has created a fully realized world of believable characters that like to express themselves with their fists. The resulting drama makes for compelling viewing… when you don’t have to duck your eyes for cover.
“Kingdom” premieres Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET on DirecTV.