Review by C.J. Bunce
Let’s face it–if you’re looking to name a television series, something called Tulsa King is probably low on the list of titles that grab you. But once you see it’s a showcase for more of the serious acting talent of three-time Oscar nominee Sylvester Stallone, then it make sense to trust the instincts of the actor, writer, and producer behind films including the Rocky, Rambo, and The Expendables franchises, but also including gems like Cop Land, Oscar, and Demolition Man–and give it a try. With his 1980s action mega-star counterpart Arnold Schwarzenegger beginning his own new series this summer with Netflix’s FUBAR, and a second season in the works, it’s a good time to watch the first season of Tulsa King. It’s a strange mix of Longmire and Cop Land, and it’s now streaming on Paramount+.
Crime does not pay. You can’t get around this hard and fast rule in Hollywood storytelling.
Tulsa King doesn’t fit in any single genre, and it’s definitely a product of the 2020s. Stallone plays “made” mob boss Dwight Manfredi, a mid-level gangster in New York who gets stuck taking the wrap for the antics of his don’s son, resulting in Manfredi spending a full 25 years in jail. It’s the present day and Manfredi has served his term, but the world he walks into at age 75 is nothing like the one he left behind. The don, played by A.C. Peterson, is on death’s door, and his dullard son Chickie, played by Domenick Lombardozzi (Magnum, PI, The Wire, Ray Donovan)–the one that got Manfredi the jail time–is angling to take over. So instead of lavishing Manfredi with gifts and thanks, the “family” sends Manfredi to the equivalent of Siberia. In 2023 U.S.A. that’s Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Manfredi isn’t really free. He still must send his “tithe” home to the Mob in New York. And knowing his role he wastes no time once he lands in Tulsa. He promptly takes over a CBD shop run by a stoner named Bodhi, played by MCU regular and the Spider-Man movies’ high school teacher, Martin Starr. Manfredi throws money at the first cabbie that picks him up, a young man named Tyson, played by Jay Will, and he becomes Manfredi’s chauffeur. At first Manfredi unleashes 25 years of anger on anyone in his way, but he slowly realizes he needs to make partnerships if he wants to build a lasting empire of his own.
Manfredi takes up with a middle-aged, dejected FBI field agent (who also was kicked to Tulsa as Siberia) 25 years his junior, named Stacy, played by Andrea Savage (iZombie). Only after their encounter does she realize she has been consorting with a convicted felon, something that can get Stacy fired. To her dismay his name keeps appearing on the fed’s watch list, and soon he even gets intermingled in her key case. This strange coincidence is only the first of the story, as one of the men who was a witness to the crime that got Manfredi the jail time–Armand–is now randomly living as a stable hand in town, and he thinks Manfredi is there to whack him. Armand is played by Max Casella (Ray Donovan, Dougie Howser, M.D.), and Casella is a great pairing with Stallone’s old school NYC style.
Armand works on a sprawling ranch–the only appealing part of the show’s setting–owned by Margaret Devereaux, played with a lot of sparkle by TV icon Dana Delany. Delany unfortunately does not get much character development this season, which consists of only nine episodes, but it looks like she may have a bigger role in the second season. Rounding out the main cast is Garrett Hedlund, who played Flynn’s son in Tron: Legacy. He plays Mitch, owner of the local bar. Manfredi soon forms a solid relationship with Mitch, which creates this kind of buddy partnership that worked so well between Sheriff Longmire and Henry Standing Bear in Longmire. Also like Longmire, Native American reservations becomes a plot point, and Jonathan Joss’s character “Bad Face” and his brother are instrumental in planning the next stage of Manfredi’s business in town–a casino.
Every first season of a series these days has that one side episode that takes the character away from the established story. For Tulsa King, it’s taking the fish-out-of-water hero and making him go back to the familiar New York, where he must pay homage to the don. Manfredi refuses to kowtow to the don’s lieutenants, and only one who remains expresses some loyalty to Manfredi. Manfredi is also trying to reconcile with his daughter, who wants no part of his life. But once she shares that one of the don’s henchmen raped her when she was young, you just know there’s going to be hell to pay. As with all good mob stories, the mob keeps trying to pull the old mob boss back in. And it’s not just the mob that won’t leave Manfredi alone, as he locks horns with a local fringe terrorist group headed by frequent bad guy actor Ritchie Coster’s vile Caolan Waltrip.
This is a role where Stallone hangs up the action hero parts, and embraces his thespian skills from Cop Land. He brings his own brand of class and humor from Oscar. Stallone has been twice nominated for an acting Oscar for his Rocky Balboa, and once for his screenwriting. Tulsa King is a drama, but the situations are so ludicrous and Stallone brings the right charm to make the show pure fun to watch.
Stallone gets to take down some loathsome types, and he gets to share and learn from a young generation of characters. New actress McKenna Quigley Harrington’s anxious and troubled Grace rises to become one of the season’s best components. The jam-packed season even takes time to catch up with Tyson’s family, and his dad, played by familiar character actor Michael Beach, demonstrates some of the surprises the writing team brings to this story.
Keep an eye open for Barry Corbin (WarGames, Stir Crazy, M*A*S*H, Northern Exposure, The Closer) as a bar patron. Also, Stallone’s daughter Scarlet Rose Stallone is a young barista Manfredi hires to care for an old horse he rescues.
A mob Western? It works. It’s all good fun with top acting and a solid story. It hails from Taylor Sheridan, writer of Hell or High Water, and the show also fits in the mold of that film, along with Lone Star and the 2013 series The Bridge. The final episodes arrived only a few weeks ago, so it’s also a recent series. Catch up with the first season of Tulsa King, now streaming on Paramount+.