After getting past the premise’s inherent pander — Hey, mixed martial arts! That’ll appeal to a young male demo! — “Kingdom,” an awful title, quickly establishes itself as a solid drama, one that weaves L.A.’s Venice neighborhood and its assorted quirks into the fabric of the show. Perpetual tough guy Frank Grillo plays Alvey Kulina, the legendary fighter who presides over a local gym, and whose youngest son, portrayed by a buff Nick Jonas, is one of his brightest prospects. Yes, there are plenty of boxing-movie-type cliches in creator Byron Balasco’s series, but DirecTV’s latest original still delivers a surprisingly potent punch.
Alvey’s talents are conveniently demonstrated right away (courtesy of a couple of not-so-friendly neighborhood gangbangers), but his larger problem involves the gym, which — as his girlfriend/inhouse manager Lisa (Kiele Sanchez) keeps reminding him — is struggling financially. Blame part of it on Alvey’s soft heart, which prevents him from ousting those hopefuls who use the facilities but don’t regularly pay.
Yet while salvation might reside in the recently paroled Ryan Wheeler (“Friday Night Lights’ ” Matt Lauria), a one-time contender, Alvey’s eagerness to train him is fraught with complications. Foremost among those are Ryan’s past relationship with Lisa, and whether after the time in prison, Ryan still has the eye of, well, you know.
The Kulina family, however, is a bit more of a mess than that. There’s Alvey’s elder son Jay (Jonathan Tucker), a free-spirited lunatic, who dad has disowned; and estranged wife Christina (Joanna Going, quite effective in limited screen time), a character who cries out for more backstory, inasmuch as she’s currently a prostitute and drug addict.
It’s to the credit of all concerned, frankly, that “Kingdom” is more compelling than it sounds, conjuring a gritty atmosphere (you can practically smell the gym through the TV) around its fractured family ties, along with familiar questions regarding redemption and second chances. All that unfolds over episodes (four were previewed) that should prevent DirecTV subscribers who sample the series from being too eager to tap out.
Indeed, the satcaster has gradually built a reasonably solid programming footprint out of shrewd international acquisitions and the occasional original, and everything from the casting to the setting suggests this Endemol Studios production has been assembled on a modest budget. Grillo, usually a second banana, makes the most of his promotion, but this is really an ensemble piece.
Ultimately, even if “Kingdom” is something of a featherweight in terms of resources and ambitions, like any good fighter, it gets the most of its available tools.