Tulsa King, the new Paramount+ drama from Taylor Sheridan and Terence Winter, is far too conventional and crafty to be a remarkable series. And yet it’s remarkable — and strangely intriguing — for a number of reasons.
For one thing, Tulsa King continues the parabolic rise of Sheridan, a writer-director who has quickly become one of the standout television episodes of the last decade. Once best known for an understated lead role in Sons of Anarchy, Sheridan has turned a handful of well-received neo-Western films into a burgeoning 35mm empire. In addition to his flagship hit “Yellowstone” and its four offshoots, Sheridan has built an ever-growing roster of projects and a storytelling brand as distinctive as household names like Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy.
The other fascinating thing about “Tulsa King” is its star, Sylvester Stallone, who, at 76, makes his first foray into series television. It’s nothing new for actors best known for yesterday’s box office hits to reinvent themselves in the land of TV’s good and plenty. But Stallone is a particular breed of performer, with his post-“Rocky” filmography split between set-piece-heavy action franchises and failed experiments to progress beyond playing fortune-tellers like “Rambo.” Until he snagged a Golden Globe for his supporting role in Creed, Stallone’s basic competency as a performer was the subject of heated debate. He’s nobody’s favorite actor.
In Tulsa King, Stallone plays a role that’s clearly tailored for him, and that makes all the difference. “Tulsa King” is a clumsy misfire, but when the show works, it works precisely because of Stallone’s charming, if characteristically mannered, performance. Stallone’s range is as compact as ever, but he navigates it with the precision of a contortionist trapped in a box. Tulsa King isn’t a great show with him, but it would be far less interesting without him.
Stallone plays Dwight “The General” Manfredi, a New York mobster who busted out of the organized crime game while serving a 25-year sentence. Upon his release, Dwight expects to be reunited with the family with a celebration at his favorite gentleman’s club and a montage of Ace Frehley’s “New York Groove.” Instead, he is taken to Long Island for a tense meeting that will determine just how much reorganization has taken place during his long absence.
Chickie (a heavily-coiffed Domenick Lombardozzi) tells Dwight there’s no more room for him in the New York organization. His only option is to accept a new assignment: set foot in Oklahoma’s second largest city, even though he’s never set foot there. In Tulsa, he is faced with the dual challenge of deciphering a new business environment while adjusting to a world different from the one he left behind. Maybe there’s still some land for old men after all, and Dwight is determined to conquer it.
The premise suggests an uphill battle for an aging crook who applies his old-fashioned methods to today’s transplant. But the pilot almost immediately extinguishes that potential by putting Dwight on a glideslope. A quarter-century away from the hustle and bustle hasn’t dulled Dwight’s criminal instincts one bit. In fact, after barely a few hours in the Sooner State and still lugging his bags, Dwight already has a personal driver (Jay Will) and the first reluctant insider in his protection bat. He literally saunters into a cannabis dispensary on a lark and within minutes has the owner Bodhi (Martin Starr) under his thumb.
Presumably, Dwight’s second act won’t always go quite so smoothly, but there’s not much in the two episodes on display for critics who hint at upcoming bumps in the road. The episodes are more interested in calibrating Dwight as a criminal anti-hero with a slick moral code to keep audiences from turning against him. The pilot gives Dwight a chance to face occasional racism and smack a bartender for associating with women, displaying just enough virtue to let viewers know he’s a capo they can love without guilt .
At the end of the two episodes, there isn’t even a clearly defined antagonist. Sure, there are clues to his life before prison that creep in to complicate his new life. And nothing good can come of his romantic spark with Stacy Beale (Andrea Savage), whose uncomfortable connection with Dwight will be more than obvious to anyone who bothers to think about it for literally two seconds. But for at least the first two episodes, Dwight’s only enemy is time itself and all the rideshares, TikTok trends, and meme stocks it’s unleashed in his absence.
True to Sheridan’s conservative-skewed brand, Dwight whines about personal gender pronouns, though he has no reason to know anything at all about such contemporary culture wars, let alone have a dog in the fight. The “What about the pronouns?” monologue sounds like something Stallone could actually say himself, even if it doesn’t make sense for the character he’s playing. Oddly enough, that makes Stallone worth watching in a show that usually isn’t. By building the world of “Tulsa King” around him, Sheridan and Winter have created a character that Sly can’t help but get it right.
Tulsa King premieres on November 13th on Paramount+ with new episodes weekly.
https://variety.com/2022/tv/reviews/tulsa-king-review-taylor-sheridan-sylvester-stallone-1235429631/ ‘Tulsa King’ Review: Taylor Sheridan Show with Sylvester Stallone