- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Tumblr
The oft-repeated narrative around Taylor Sheridan and Terence Winter’s new Paramount+ gangster dramedy Tulsa King is that the pilot script for the Sylvester Stallone vehicle was written in a day. Suck it, building-of-Rome.
Next time, maybe take two?
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Andrea Savage, Martin Starr, Garrett Hedlund, Domenick Lombardozzi, Max Casella, Vincent Piazza, Jay Will
Creator: Taylor Sheridan
Don’t get me wrong. I know such creative tales are apocryphal, but just because something is a tall tale doesn’t mean it doesn’t contain elements of truth. And based on the first two episodes of Tulsa King, there’s no question that it is a path-of-least-resistance piece of television. On almost every level, it hits the most obvious of genre beats, resorts to the most obvious of punchlines. If there are absolutely hints of a potentially likable series here, anchored by a nicely self-effacing performance from Stallone, most of what’s currently on display is reminiscent of either a middlebrow TNT series from 2010 or an elongated version of a movie Stallone might have made between Oscar and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot.
Stallone plays Dwight Manfredi, a former mafia capo released after spending 25 years in prison. Dwight served time in part because he refused to flip on the local godfather (A.C. Peterson). He doesn’t expect a parade or anything, but he hopes for some sign of gratitude. With the godfather’s son (Domenick Lombardozzi) in charge, Dwight finds himself generally superfluous and he’s tasked with going to Tulsa to “open things up.” Why Tulsa? I guess that’s part of the point. It’s a random place to be shipped into purgatory, a sentence Dwight compounds when he cold-cocks a hot-headed young capo (Vincent Piazza), which is something you just don’t do in their world.
But anyway, it’s off to Oklahoma, where Dwight quickly befriends a young, Black taxi driver (Jay Will’s Tyson) and begins the process of organizing the disorganized crime in Tulsa, starting with a weed dispensary run by Martin Starr’s Bodhi. “But wait,” you and Bodhi are surely saying, “if marijuana is legal in Oklahoma, what is Dwight even doing?” And I guess that’s part of the point, too.
The modern world, you see, is not the way it was when Dwight left. The list of things that Dwight does not get about 2022 includes: Uber; the aforementioned legalized weed; people using credit cards instead of cash; coffee-shop serving containers; kids today and their pronouns.
Clearly, though, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
“Seriously. What’s going on with this country in general nowadays?” Dwight asks in the second episode. Dwight compares himself to Rip Van Winkle, but the reality is that he’s much more like every older character in a hoary broadcast sitcom who, when paired with a bright-eyed millennial or Gen Z partner, gets flustered about the state of our nation, inevitably landing on “pronouns” as the locus of their discontent.
In this respect, Tulsa King is broad and bland and very much written by people whose primary strength is not in comedy (not to take anything away from Winter’s early work on Sister, Sister). I hoped desperately that Dwight’s blank-eyed stare when faced with every aspect of our changed world would be a thing Tulsa King got out of its system after the pilot. But even the second episode, which was presumably written in more than one day, falls back on an identical crutch and is, in fact, even more stuck on fish-out-of-water cliches.
There are two reasons the general hackiness of the Rip Van Winkle comedy isn’t exactly a distraction.
The first is that the gangster side of the series is plenty derivative as well. Winter made his bones, of course, as one of David Chase’s primary capos on The Sopranos, a show that illogically spun Mafia clichés and beats of sitcom shtick into absolute gold, using a fusion of familiar elements that somehow produced something fresh. And maybe Tulsa King will get there as well, though at no point on The Sopranos were the central mobsters this indistinct, their vernacular this drained of color. The conflict between Dwight and the new mafiosos is by-the-numbers, as is the way that world follows him to Oklahoma, as is the weirdly arbitrary choice to turn his threatening intentions toward Bodhi’s dispensary.
The second is that, no matter what you expect from Sheridan’s Paramount pedigree or the way Paramount+ is promoting the show, Tulsa King is definitely primarily a comedy. There’s no action, very little violence and the dramatic stakes are close to invisible. The solution to the show’s improvement isn’t to stop trying to be funny, but rather to be funny better. In this respect, maybe I should feel relieved that all of the flimsiest attempts at humor in Tulsa King are old-versus-young instead of New York City-versus-Oklahoma, which might have been even less imaginative.
The truth is that the best moments of Tulsa King almost all relate to the show’s modicum of effort to treat its setting with a little authenticity. Shooting in and around Tulsa gives the series a bit of local color, and there are aspects in early episodes — the use of the acoustic anomaly known as the Center of the Universe or a weed supplier’s Indigenous enforcer — that achieve something slightly distinctive.
Dwight is contradictory without being complex. Usually, the show wants him to be the lunkheaded butt of every joke, then it turns around and we get a scene where he’s suddenly a business genius. Usually, the show wants to treat him like an ideological dinosaur, then it turns around and has him threaten a car dealer for racially profiling Tyson, who almost immediately becomes Dwight’s driver and ubiquitous sidekick. Stallone handles the incongruities respectably, not that “expressing confusion” has ever been one of his acting liabilities. He has the requisite swagger and menace and, as flimsy as the writing is, he sounds comfortable delivering punchlines in a way that hasn’t always been the case.
If the creators haven’t figured out how to make Dwight consistent, they’re even less sure what to do with Tyson, and there are long stretches when Will is innocuously adrift, with no real voice to speak of. More immediately settled are Starr, always entertaining with droll incredulity, as well as Andrea Savage and Garrett Hedlund in small but valuable supporting roles. I can’t tell how much Hedlund is part of the show long-term, but his plotline, based around a ribs-serving honkytonk, is the closest Tulsa King comes to real, human emotion. It also made me think fondly of his first-season cameo on the Oklahoma-set Reservation Dogs.
As skeptical as I may be about the literal accuracy of the show’s “written in one day” origins, the first two episodes definitely give the impression of being something that Sheridan, Paramount+’s golden goose at this point, gestated between work on 15 different Yellowstone sequels and prequels. “Sylvester Stallone as an NYC mobster plunked down in the Southwest” is a good premise! It could maybe be a good show! Unfortunately, the development into that good show, which should have taken place in preproduction, will have to happen in progress.
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day