“Yellowstone,” “Mayor of Kingstown,” “1883” — so far, Taylor Sheridan’s steadily expanding TV universe has hewed closely to the writer-director’s breakthrough hit. And why not? Kevin Costner’s soapy family saga is a ratings juggernaut, its success credited to a setting in what’s left of America’s wild west, where the old ways of doing things clash with new ideas of right and wrong. A prequel, “1883,” ditches any pretense by abandoning the present to live fully in the past. Surrounding the Duttons’ actual ancestors are colonizers and covered wagons, shootouts and scenic vistas. If Costner represents the last of the cowboys, then Sam Elliott is their paragon at the peak of their prevalence. Even “Mayor of Kingstown,” which has no narrative ties to “Yellowstone,” is told like a modern Western with a heavy emphasis on family, reform, and machismo. Jeremy Renner may not wear a Stetson, but he may as well have a six-shooter hanging from his hip.
Families, gunfights, and a healthy respect for rural America aren’t all these shows have in common. Dating back to his first feature screenplay, the 2015 film “Sicario,” Sheridan’s work has always been deadly serious. John Dutton has nearly died a dozen times. His forefathers’ long journey toward Montana was a deadly one. “Mayor of Kingstown” is so fixated on being taken seriously, its best actor is killed off within the first hour.
Perhaps that’s why “Tulsa King,” Sheridan’s latest series for Paramount, feels like a breath of fresh air. Starring Sylvester Stallone as an aging gangster exiled to Oklahoma after a 25-year prison sentence, the first two episodes feature their fair share of punches, posturing, and family problems. But so far, it has more in common with movies like “Space Cowboys” and “The Old Man and the Gun” than “Sicario” and “Wind River”; stories about old men trying to make good before it’s all over, but doing so with a wink and a smile. In the hands of showrunner and co-writer Terence Winter (“Boardwalk Empire”), there’s also a breezy quality to the proceedings that befits the star’s dual skillset: an intimidating heavy one minute and a waggish teddy bear the next. In future seasons, if not the next few episodes, “Tulsa King” could end up adopting its creator’s predilection for self-seriousness, but the show’s geniality and Sly’s sparks offer a better, brighter path forward.
Brian Douglas / Paramount+
Meet Dwight Manfredi (Stallone). Dubbed “The General” (since, as he tells people, he was named after Dwight. D. Eisenhower), the lifelong New Yorker has spent two-and-a-half decades in federal prison in order to shield his mafia boss from any charges. Now free, he’s looking forward to a proper reward: a fat payday, a party at Scores gentlemen’s club, and a proper post in the family’s upper ranks. But a lot has changed in 25 years. Kids that Dwight has only seen in diapers are now men who give orders — who give him orders. And one of those orders is to move to Tulsa, Oklahoma, set up an illicit operation, and kick back $5,000 a week to his superiors (you know, just to start).
“Tulsa King” doesn’t waste much time establishing its premise. No clear reason is given as to why “there’s nothing left” for Dwight in his major metropolitan hometown. Even more vexing: Dwight’s opening voiceover reveals he regrets joining up in the first place: “Not 25 years, not 25 seconds” of prison time was worth becoming a gangster, he says. So it makes sense when he takes out his frustration over being banished by thumping a protected mafioso in the nose, even if it makes less sense that he quickly finds his composure and packs his bags. It’s safe to assume some loyalty remains, after spending half his adult life in the clink, or he’s in no position to cut and run at 76 years old, but these are assumptions the audience is asked to make on their own and fast. Before you can say, “What gives?” he’s being pepper-sprayed with holy water by a religious wacko at the Tulsa airport.
Forgiving further unpolished plot movement is relatively easy from there on out because Oklahoma is where things get good. Stallone playing a fish out of water who’s also a bull in a china shop proves perpetually entertaining. The second episode sees Dwight trying to settle into his new digs, making light comedy out of bribing a DMV clerk, applying for a bank account (sans legitimate identification), and accidentally getting high during a key contract negotiation. Winter wisely grounds each awkward or unforeseen scenario in character development, letting viewers get to know Dwight while subverting his tough guy persona, and Stallone’s comedic chops fit Dwight like one of his fine Italian suits.
“Tulsa King” is tailored for the broad-shouldered, barrel-chested actor — not just his action skills, but his ability to surprise. There’s no hiding Stallone’s physical prominence, and the series makes brief use of his physicality, with more brawling and battles sure to come. But there’s a difference between standing out and inviting attention. Most of the time, Dwight acts like an everyman — like there’s nothing abnormal about what he’s doing, even when his mere presence makes things a bit unusual for everyone else. Part of that choice is rooted in character: Dwight has to insist he’s just a normal guy in order to avoid suspicion from the authorities as he goes about establishing a criminal enterprise. Part is in service of the series’ lighter mood. (The hulking Stallone sipping an espresso, mourning the loss of proper glass cups, is just smart observational humor.) But acting innocent is also one of Sly’s specialties, dating all the way back to Rocky Balboa — a rough-and-tumble brawler with a heart so big he’s got room for Adrian plus three pets (Butkus, Cuff, and Link). Seeing the star feign ignorance, exhibit fearlessness, and relent to his real feelings (every so often) gives “Tulsa King” a beating heart of its own.
With only two episodes to evaluate, there’s plenty of time left for Winter’s latest to grow or… not. Once the newness of Tulsa wears off for Dwight, he’ll need to find fresh comedic sources, and there’s no telling what those might be — or if the series will simply lose its loose, laidback vibes altogether. But for now, “Tulsa King” is a much-needed light amid Sheridan’s dark universe — and much of it is thanks to its star.
“Tulsa King” premieres Sunday, November 13 on Paramount+. Episodes will be released weekly, and the first two hours will air on the Paramount Network as a special engagement Sunday, November 20 at 9 p.m. ET.