As the creator of the “Yellowstone” franchise, Taylor Sheridan’s notions of masculinity aren’t what you’d call expansive, but fit comfortably into the same mold that produced John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. A similar but distinctive mark of masculinity exists in stories about the mob.
With “Tulsa King” on Paramount+, Sheridan teams up with “Sopranos” and “Boardwalk Empire” alum Terence Winter to combine these two archetypes into one show starring Sylvester Stallone as an aging but still living New Yorker. buff, fresh out of the joint, who is sent to Tulsa – banished, in effect, by his Italian-American business associates – to set up a lucrative plan in Oklahoma. That’s the premise: mafia fish out of water.
So he falls back on what he knows – the drug game – but that comes with a twist, since pot is legalized: He breaks into a dispensary and informs the owner (a wet noodle of a guy played by Martin Starr) that he will now pay protection money whether he likes it or not, up to 20% of his profits.
Sheridan and Winter gave Stallone’s character an unnecessarily picky nickname: Dwight “The General” Manfredi — his first name is a nod to Eisenhower, given to him by his immigrant parents embracing Americana, but not the Americana who interested Dwight.
“When I was 17, my father asked me what I wanted to be. Would I like to be a barber, like him? I laughed in his face,” he says in voiceover, contemplating his future after a quarter of a century locked in jail. “I wanted to be a successful gangster. Looking back, I wondered if what I had chosen was worth 25 years of my life? The answer is no. Not 25 seconds I married this life and after keeping my mouth shut for all these years, I’m going to see if she remarried me.
There’s something reassuring about Stallone as an on-screen presence. It’s a celebrity that’s become increasingly rare, but there’s more to it. He knows how to carry a story that would be less interesting in other hands and he understands how to wield his charisma and that low, growling voice in a way that never seems arrogant or forced. He can do this sort of thing with style and economy. Kind of like the guy he plays.
So who is Dwight? He is alone but motivated to work. Or rather “work”, as defined by organized crime. He loves chivalry and a tailored suit. A gentleman gangster whose fist will make contact if he thinks you’re disrespecting him or the taxi driver he hires as his personal driver (Jay Will). At 75, he is forced to start over. The world may have changed during his time in prison, but some truths remain the same. He knows that brute force will always get things done.
The series also deals with moth-eaten notions of authenticity and there’s a complimentary rant on pronouns. It’s not that I don’t buy Dwight having that point of view, but it seems so unnecessary. We already know who this guy is: old school but adaptable.
If “Tulsa King” was an ’80s or ’90s movie — and it almost has that sensibility, at least in the pilot — it would make a nice double feature with “Road House” or “My Cousin Vinny.” The edges are harder here. It seems to turn into an endless crime saga around the drug trade and its complications. Lots of people loved Netflix’s “Ozark” for the same reason, I’m just not one of them; I think there are other more interesting stories to tell.
More specifically, the films have a clear end goal that emerges – a story with pacing and a solid arc – and I’m not convinced “Tulsa King” can avoid the diminishing returns that tend to plague a TV series where audiences is questioned. follow, wait and wait for the endgame to play out.
But there’s also a lot to love here, including the show’s commentary on the obstacles that exist for anyone reentering society after a long time in prison. “That’s why people break the law,” Dwight says, barely alleviating his frustration, “because they make everything legit so complicated.”
There’s little visually unexpected here, but the first episode includes a terrific moment of Dwight cooling his heels in a Long Island kitchen somewhere, awaiting an audience with his crime boss, and we get a glimpse of Stallone’s face. reflected in a row of chef’s knives taped to a magnetic board. It’s a smart move and the insinuation of violence is heard loud and clear.
2 1/2 stars (out of 4)
How to watch: Paramount+