The DirecTV original series Kingdom, which airs on the AT&T Audience Network and returns with new episodes on June 1st, sees Alvey (Frank Grillo) having to face his past and deal with the impact of what’s happening with his family and loved ones. At the same time, Jay (Jonathan Tucker) and Ryan (Matt Lauria) are preparing for their upcoming championship bout with each other, Nate (Nick Jonas) is determined to return to the cage and prove he has what it takes to make it as a fighter, Alicia (Natalie Martinez) is preparing for her first professional fight, Christina (Joanna Going) is trying to find her footing after overdoing on heroin, and Lisa (Kiele Sanchez) makes a life-altering decision that will forever change her relationship with Alvey.
Back in February, Collider was invited to the North Hollywood set (which is also a working MMA gym) of the intense and visceral series for an exclusive set visit to hang out, watch filming and chat with the cast of Kingdom. During our interview with show creator Byron Balasco, he talked about the next chapter in these characters’ lives, how far ahead he’d thought about where things would go when he started the show, how he approaches the storytelling, how Jay and Ryan’s fight will affect everyone, seeing new characters added to the mix, and how long he could see the series going for. Be aware that there are some spoilers.
Collider: What can you say about where things are going next on the show?
BYRON BALASCO: It’s a continuation of the show, in the sense that each batch of 10 episodes is really just another chapter in these people’s lives. We’re not a cliffhanger show. We’re not very plot driven. There’s a lot of story, but not a lot of plot points that have to be pulled through. It’s really just the next chapter in these people’s lives.
When you started this show, how far ahead had you thought about where these characters would go and where they would end up?
BALASCO: You have an idea about the characters, but as far as where exactly they were going to end up, not very far. You write the first episode, and then you see what you have. You know who these characters are, so you know the overall thrust of their life, but I like to leave it open to discover stuff, along the way. Once you get the actors in there and you really start seeing who these characters are and what relationships turn out to be interesting, in ways that maybe you didn’t expect when you were just writing, I always leave us room to go explore that, if something interesting presents itself. So, globally, there’s a good idea of where they’re going to go and how they’re going to end up. How they get there is something you figure out, along the way.
Had you always thought about Jay and Ryan having to fight each other, at some point, or did that come out of seeing where their characters were naturally headed?
BALASCO: That’s something that, in the beginning of this show, wasn’t so much on my mind, until the show was cast and I saw what these actors brought and who they were. The fact that they would be in the same weight class made it so that this was inevitable. It’s always good drama when loved ones have to fight each other. It complicates things, not only between them, but it complicates father-son relationships and brother relationships. It also adds a lot of drama into the gym, which is always good.
Since there can only be one winner of a fight, how will a fight between Jay and Ryan affect them?
BALASCO: I think it affects them in ways you may not expect. You think you want to win, and that’s the point, but when you win, your life is not that different than it was. Things you thought it might solve don’t really go away. It also might change the dynamic in relationships that were very important to these people, in a way that maybe it wasn’t worth it, or maybe it was. It’s not as clear as the winner wins and the loser loses. A lot of times, the winner loses more, on a certain level, than the guy that got beat. In real life, a victory is not a solve for what’s troubling someone.
With Alvey, it seems like you have to be winning to get his attention, so how will Jay and Ryan fighting affect him and his relationship with both of them?
BALASCO: It’s a tough dilemma for Alvey because it’s his son versus a kid that’s been a surrogate son. Ryan is looking to Alvey to fill in some sort of father figure role, in the absence of his own father, that maybe Alvey is equipped for, but maybe not. He hasn’t been the greatest, most present father for Jay. So, that whole thing plays into the hot spots of those relationships.
How do you deal with and figure out this show on a season by season basis? Do you plan it all out first, or do you like to stay more fluid than that?
BALASCO: It’s fluid, but there is definitely some planning. You sit down and think, what is the overall arc of the season? You try to nail down a couple of big events, like something as simple as Jay and Ryan will fight and an old friend comes into Alvey’s life, and then you start building story from there. Even those things that seem to be about two characters really affect everybody. Our show is pretty tight and pretty insular, in terms of the relationships, so everything that happens really affects everybody. So, we come up with some big moves and start trying to build around them. And then, a lot of times, those original ideas will just go away because the characters take it to another area. I like to work really close with the actors, so we’ll all sit down individually and talk about what’s going on in our lives that we want to explore or what’s going on in the character’s life that we want to explore. We’ll just talk loosely, nothing specific and nothing plot driven, but what’s going on in all of our heads, at that moment. And then, I gather all of that information and start turning it into a story.
Do you find that some of the actors want to know way more about where their character is headed than others?
BALASCO: At first, there’s a lot of that. At the beginning of a show, nobody is quite sure who the hell anybody is, whether the show is even good, or what you’re even making. You have to earn trust. But now, we’re at a point where we all go with it. All of these actors really take such ownership of their characters. They may ask a few questions, but I think they also enjoy this idea of not knowing too much. I think it allows them to be more authentic in the moment, as opposed to playing a result that they think they should be going for. A lot of times, if you know too much about where you’re ending up, you can’t help but shade every scene towards that goal, when it’s not necessary. I think that helps our scenes feel organic and lived in, as opposed to pushing a plot agenda forward.
Have you thought about how many seasons you’d ideally like to have, to tell the story that you’re telling?
BALASCO: I don’t have a number in mind, in particular. I doubt it would be 15 seasons. It can’t be too long. They can’t fight forever. I don’t have a number in my head. It’s really just, as long as I keep having stories and we keep being interesting, then we’ll keep doing it. As soon as we all feel like we’ve discovered everything that needs to be, or we feel like we’re repeating ourselves, or we’ve already told the whole story, than we’ll stop.
Is it hard to plan out a show and decide where to leave things with the story, when you don’t necessarily know if you’re coming back for another season?
BALASCO: It is hard to do that, but that’s not really our situation. We’re only doing 10 episodes, so we can tell a complete story. If, god forbid, this was our last 10, you could feel like the show was complete. There’s not some big question that we didn’t solve. So, in that sense, I don’t have that pressure to make a season and series finale, anytime I write the final episode. It’s really hard, on network shows, to do a pilot and 12 episodes, and then wait to find out if you’re going to get a back nine. That’s really difficult because you’re writing to completion with 13, but if you’re lucky, you get nine more, and then what the fuck do you do?
Have any specific characters most surprised you, in the direction that they’ve gone, or turned out drastically different from what you’ve expected?
BALASCO: No, honestly. It’s not that they’ve turned out drastically different, or that I’ve changed the fundamental aspects of any of them. It’s just me being pleasantly overwhelmed and surprised at the nuances I can find because of the talent of the actors that we have. That’s really been the biggest thing that I’m grateful for.
This show definitely goes to some pretty dark places. Do you have a gauge for how far you’ll take things, or is it just about what feels organic?
BALASCO: You definitely has a gauge for it, and there are definitely some things that you think about, like whether or not it’s inevitable. If it feels inevitable, it just has to happen. I think we do a good job of putting humor in the show, throughout the show. I never want us to feel dark, in the sense that we’re brooding and loveless. There needs to be a warmth in everything that we do on the show. I think these characters do a great job of making you believe that they all care about each other, on a certain level. Even when they do really fucked up or deplorable shit, or stuff that’s unlikeable, we try really hard to create an emotional logic that the audience can understand. I feel like, if the audience understands the character’s emotional logic, they’ll really forgive almost any action. Whether they agree with it or not, if they understand why somebody needs to do something, you can do what you need to do to tell the story. We never want to do dark for dark’s sake, if it’s not connected to anything real.
We watched Ryan help his dad die, we watched Alvey’s friend kill himself in front of him, and we watched Christina overdose. Where is everyone at now?
BALASCO: They’re always trying to figure it out. I don’t think anybody solves anything, necessarily, but they try to do better. We’ll come back and find our characters trying to move forward, in a lot of ways, and have some internal resolution to all of the events that happened in the finale. But just because you see them doing better, it doesn’t mean there aren’t things lingering inside of them that won’t come out in different ways. It’s just a little more scar tissue that keeps building and keeps us propelling through the show.
Nate seems like the wild card, as far as what his journey will be next. What will we see from him?
BALASCO: He is finding himself, and that’s bringing him closer and closer to a crisis point. The more that he discovers about himself, the more that he clings to what he knows, which is fighting and the gym, and all of that. Going on that journey that he’s on and that discovery of his true and authentic self, he’s going to have to figure out how to create a life around that, that he can be happy with. You can’t really be happy, if you’re not being honest with yourself, and that brings him closer and closer to the crisis point of, when that’s out there, it’s going to redefine a lot of relationships in his life that I don’t know that he’s ready to redefine. But he’s human and, at a certain point, that will have to come home to roost.
We know that Lisa will be back, in some capacity, so what do you want to say about that?
BALASCO: That she’s back. That’s all I’ll say. Her presence will be throughout the season, and it has a very profound affect on all of our guys and girls. Her return will be a big moment for us.
Why was it important to you to bring a female fighter into the story, especially one at the beginning of her career?
BALASCO: That was really born out of the time I spent in gyms and MMA gyms. There are women in all of the gyms. We aim to be true to life and as authentic to the world as we can, so to not have female fighters in the gym would just not have been real. It’s interesting for me to watch these people at the very beginning of their journey. They may be at the cusp of stardom, or it may be over before it begins for them. That’s just the nature of the sport. You don’t know. You may have a lot of talent, but you don’t have the emotional stability to keep that together.
Will we see any new characters, coming up?
BALASCO: Yeah, there are a few. I don’t want to give away the relationships of who they are, but there will definitely be some new cast.
Do you enjoy getting to throw new people into the mix and seeing how that affects the current dynamics?
BALASCO: Yeah, it’s always great. That’s always fun. We really try to give the new cast that we bring in their own point of view, so that the audience gets to know them and they don’t feel like guests, but they feel like they’re in the fabric of the show. I think that has much more of a visceral affect on our main cast, when those people come in.
Kingdom airs on Wednesday nights on the Audience Network on DirecTV.