The Taylor Sheridan-verse keeps expanding. With an entire “Yellowstone” empire on the air, several spin-offs in the work (“Yellowstone: 1923,” “Bass Reeves”), and dozens more unrelated shows coming soon (“Lioness,” “Land Man”), the writer, director, producer, showrunner and exec (known for his Academy Award nominated “Hell Or Hight Water” and the film “Sicario” before he moved to TV) has built out a Paramount+ TV dynasty, that is absolutely unrivaled on television outside of Marvel.
His latest series, “Tulsa King”—which may or may not be vaguely related to “Yellowstone” (a brief crossover was rumored, but it’s unclear if they kept it)—centers on Dwight “The General” Manfredi, a New York Mafia capo who just completed a 25-year prison sentence. Played by Sylvester Stallone in his first major starring role on television, the series is essentially about an exiled man, a fish out of water and perhaps one that plays slightly with American cultural dynamics (Manfredi is as New York as he can get, but is exiled in the American heartland).
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It’s also about criminal who left a family behind—a wife, a daughter whose now an adult—has a hole in his heart and is looking for personal redemption.
But Manfredi’s long-awaited release from prison does not come with the pot of gold at the end of it that he expects. Having kept his mouth shut for a murder his boss (A.C. Peterson) committed, the capo boss is expecting a big time restitution from the Invernizzi mafia family. But times are tough in the gangster world, things have changed over nearly three decades, and what should be a recompense, feels more like cruel ironic punishment to purgatory.
Expecting a big present and payday for being loyal, instead, Mandfredi’s boss sends him to Tulsa, Oklahoma to establish criminal operations there. While it’s a wide open territory that could arguably make him far richer than he would be in New York, regardless, Mandfredi sees it as an insult. Eventually Don Charles “Chickie” Invernizzi (Domenick Lombardozzi), the underboss who is essentially the de facto king since his father is ill, empathizes, apologizes, but says this is all they have for him, take it or leave it. Manfredi relents, but not before junior boss Vince Antonacci (Vincent Piazza), gets a busted face for showing him disrespectful lip.
Not knowing anyone in the area, The General seeks a new crew to help establish his empire and that’s basically the set-up for the entire show. Among those who he finds in Tulsa as potential partners, people to exploit for “protection” include bar tender and former veteran Mitch Keller (Garett Hedlund), cannabis dispensary business man Bohdi (Martin Starr), Tyson (Jay Will) the driver he’s quickly recruited, and probably more people to come (Annabella Sciorra and Dana Delany are two actors who will eventually appear, but don’t in the first two episodes given to press for review).
Given only a brief taste of “Tulsa King,” difficulties only just begin to arise— a hook up with an attractive divorcée (Andrea Savage) gets complicated when she, a law enforcement ATF agent, realizes that her one night stand was with a mobster that her bureau is now aware of. Max Casella also appears as, Armand Truisi, an ambitious criminal also operating under the patronage of the Invernizzi family, who starts freaking out when realizes Manfredi is in town. Additionally, Antonacci, the kid with the broken face wants his own reimbursement, and that’s going to come at a cost.
Showrun by Terence Winter— Martin Scorsese’s right hand man for all things television,having showrun “Boardwalk Empire,” “Vinyl” and written “The Wolf Of Wall Street”— also a writer on the series, while it’s hard to judge something based on two episodes, “Tulsa King” immediately doesn’t possess the spark of the aforementioned material (Sheridan is finally delegating, but he also shares a co-writing credit on at least the pilot and exec produces the entire series)
“Tulsa King” is adequate, semi-engaging, mildly charming, somewhat funny, and feels like it has potential, but mostly feels—so far—like just another Taylor Sheridan series about crime, the complications of their extended and found families, and the territories that people find themselves defending and living on, either by need or circumstance.
Filled with the same kind of macho posturing that feels part and parcel with the Sheridan verse—which isn’t inherently a bad thing, it can yield some low-key comedy—Stallone is a pretty good aged vessel to be confused and estranged by social media, current cultural trends, and modern life in general, but it remains to be seen if the show’s subtle humor will ever rise above some knowing chuckles.
Seemingly more in Stallone’s wheelhouse is the more introspective moments of soul-searching when Manfredi begins to yearn for his daughter—something he learned to block out when he was trapped on the inside. There’s potentially soulful aspect of regret and pain that could yield emotional and dramatic dividends, but so far “Tulsa King” is slow to build and uncertain if it can deliver more of the expected and same.
If there’s are some surprises, it’s that Sheridan draw Stallone as a meathead gangster. Yes, he can codeswitch when with the boys, but after 25 years in prison, he’s surprisingly educated, well-read, bright, knows his quotes, literature and seems to be holding on to a quiet intellect and wisdom that surely come in handy when strategic moves need to happen. That said, “Tulsa King” does run the risk of a lot of dullards busting people’s kneecaps for not paying their protection and other gangster cliches.
If anything is certain, escalating war and crime feels like its on the horizon (and well, the trailers sure hint at that too), which means violence, payback, retribution and presumably a lot of tough decisions that may yield to greater consequences. But is it much different than say, “Yellowstone” or even Sheridan’s “The Mayor of Kingstown” which features another highly capable bruiser with a heart of gold who is also the smartest guy in the room of his rugged and dangerous environment trying to navigate all the predators constantly encircling him? To that end, is it just Sheridan alpha male archetypes in Oklahoma instead of Montana or Michigan? Well, as the trailer says, it’s too soon to tell. [C+]