The year is 2022 and Sylvester Stallone, 76, stars in his first scripted television series, the likable crime comedy Tulsa King, which premieres Sunday on Paramount+.
Stallone plays Dwight David Manfredi, “a jug out of the jug lately,” in Frank Loesser’s immortal phrase. Dwight, a mob mumbo-jumbo, has served 25 years in prison after (as far as I can tell) taking rap for his boss “to hit a guy I actually liked who didn’t deserve it” – so complicated, mafia life – and refused to betray anyone to reduce his sentence. His wife has divorced him; his daughter is estranged. But instead of receiving a comfortable sinecure for his victim, he is exiled to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to “fly a flag.” This is framed as a present – the only one under the tree – and Dwight decides to make the best of what he thinks is going to be a bad thing. But not before he takes down a disrespectful young capo and paints a target on his own back with it.
“Tulsa King” was created by Taylor Sheridan, who, after “Yellowstone” (Kevin Costner) and its prequel “1883” (Sam Elliott), once again frames a series around a venerable screen icon, with Harrison Ford slated for the upcoming sequel-prequel ” 1923.” His co-showrunner is Terence Winter, who created Boardwalk Empire and spent several seasons with The Sopranos, and Tulsa King feels like the chemical bond of their interests and backgrounds. (Sheridan is from Texas, Winter is a Brooklyn kid.) Or those old commercials where chocolate and peanut butter collide to make a Reese’s Cup.
Dwight lands in Tulsa and is greeted at the side of the road by a grasshopper, a woman with holy water, and Tyson (the appealing Jay Will), a jovial cabbie who was hired as Dwight’s driver before the bags even got out of the car, carrying a bundle Given money to buy a Lincoln Navigator. But before that happens, Dwight has him stop at a nice, peaceful marijuana dispensary on the way into town, run by Bodhi (an eye-rolling Martin Starr, at his driest, most bitter form). Dwight causes a stir and offers him a deal he can’t refuse.
“I’ll protect you from the gangs,” says Dwight, who only wants 20% of the profits.
“What gangs?” Bodhi wonders.
“And the law.”
Still, Dwight is no joke, especially when he learns that Bodhi has half a million dollars lying around the office. And like Dorothy in Oz, but with muscles, he adds another companion to his party.
Next up is Stacy (Andrea Savage), who meets Dwight at a local cowboy bar, to which he will return regularly. After sleeping together, she’s shocked to learn he’s 75 – she put it at a “hard 55” – and makes a quick, embarrassed exit. (Kudos to Sheridan and Winter for making Stacy as uncomfortable as the viewer himself might get, and for not making Stallone play a hard 55. Or 70, for that matter. ) As if that wasn’t enough, Stacy turns out to be a federal agent, and at work the next morning, she discovers that Dwight is more than the fit old guy she picked up the night before. “At least he has integrity,” she says, upon learning they could never turn him.
God knows the audience has a penchant for misbehaving mob types, and Stallone is convincingly tough, and not just for a seventy-something. Still, there are the usual clues meant to show that, like the boy in the Shangri-Las song, Dwight is good-evil but not evil. For example, who he hits – a racist car dealer, a drunk molesting a woman – and the fact that he seems a lot smarter and nicer and more sensitive than his old criminal accomplices. “I want to be your friend,” he says to Bodhi, and he may well believe that this is the basis of their relationship. He is chivalrous. He misses his daughter. (Paternity develops into a minor theme.)
Accordingly, the show is at its best when it moves away from the criminal storylines and lets Dwight, who is expressing regret over his career path, show his softer side: a chat with bartender Mitch (a victorious Garrett Hedlund) at the Bred 2 Buck Saloon ; eat ice cream with Tyson; teasing Bodhi while he’s accidentally high; or trying to make sense of a world where “GM has gone electric, Dylan has gone public, a phone is a camera, and coffee—$5 a cup! And the Stones, thank goodness, are still touring.”
Thankfully, “Tulsa King” (based on the two episodes available for review) focuses more on character and comedy once the explanatory formalities are settled. Stallone may not be the world’s best actor, but he has charm and presence with plenty of cultural capital, and he’s surrounded by seasoned players including Max Casella as a mafia expat and the never-before-seen Dana Delany as a rich lady with a horse farm and game reserve. I’d be happy enough if Dwight, who ends the opening episode by declaring, “From this point forward, this town and everything in it is mine,” settled for comparing Boots to other barflies and snapping snacks with Tyson. And that’s why I’m not a screenwriter.
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/tv/story/2022-11-13/tulsa-king-paramount-network-sylvester-stallone-taylor-sheridan-review ‘Tulsa King’ review: ‘The Sopranos’ meets ‘Yellowstone’