Tulsa King Delivers Ridiculous Fun, But Isn’t Up to Taylor Sheridan’s Usual StandardPhoto Courtesy of Paramount+ TV Reviews Tulsa King
The premise of a mafia show starring Sylvester Stallone and written/directed by Taylor Sheridan, the man who gave us brilliant films like Sicario, Wind River, and Hell or High Water—and even the eminently watchable and occasionally great Yellowstone—seemed almost too good to be true, and I’m sorry to bear the bad news that, well… it absolutely is. The reality of Paramount+’s Tulsa King doesn’t match up to the promise, and that has to be the headline here. But if you’re in the market for Stallone in a role that can best be described as “Jack Reacher, but old and Italian,” you’re going to have some fun. And in the current TV landscape, you could do a lot worse than a good time.
Whether that paragraph is disappointing (and maybe aggravating) or not probably has to do with your expectations. First off, let’s talk Stallone. The man looks amazing for 76, more muscular and youthful than he has any right to be, but his acting has not necessarily improved with time. He carries himself in Tulsa King with a kind of grinning machismo, and he’s still got that brutish charm you remember, but there’s also a rigidity when he’s playing it serious, and his words don’t flow with the rough poetry of the old days. As the mobster Dwight Manfredi, who kept his mouth shut for 25 years in prison to protect his people, he comes off less like an actual character and more like an out-of-practice actor trying to act. That inevitably lowers the stakes from the start, and creates the immersion problem—it’s hard to actually get into this show, because on some level it all feels a little goofy.
Which, again, is not the worst thing in the world, provided you weren’t expecting world class drama. Unfortunately, that’s sort of what I was expecting, and when you’re in that boat, it gets tough to appreciate the consolation prize of what Tulsa King really is. It’s not all Stallone’s fault, either; the plotting is rough. Manfredi comes out of a prison to find a New York City that has no place for him, and the Invernizzi crime family to whom he showed decades of loyalty has decided to exile him to Tulsa with the mandate to make money. He breaks a jaw on that way out the door, but ultimately does as he’s told, and the narrative spirals from there.
One of his first moves is to storm into a marijuana dispensary and demand a cut of their earnings… which Bohdi, the shop owner played by Martin Starr, seems to just accept, even without much of an explanation from Manfredi about who he is or what authority he’s acting under. I’m not exactly an expert in the protection racket, but in the year 2022 it seems like this would be slightly more complicated. Next, he hires his cabbie Tyson as his personal driver (this poor character, played by Jay Will, doesn’t even get a last name in the first two episodes), and then he’s approached by a woman at a bar looking for a good time, they sleep together, and of course it turns out she’s an ATF agent. You get the picture here—it’s all a little lazy, a little slapdash, as if the writers trust you not to care very much about the story when you get to watch Stallone kick some ass.
And now that we’ve established the shortcomings, it is worth recognizing that it’s pretty fun to watch Stallone kick some ass. He’s not a “good guy” here, but the plot isn’t substantial enough to make that a big deal, and when he punches up a car dealer who won’t sell to Tyson because he thinks he’s a drug dealer, or breaks the jaw of a wiseguy shit-talking him, it delivers those satisfying Reacher jolts. He can even convincingly do a version of melancholy, like when he’s talking about his long-lost daughter or the wasted years of his life, that grasps just enough pathos to make the rest of it more impactful.
A handful of the other performances are worth the price of admission, too. As Chickie Invernizzi, the nominal head of the family, Domenick Lombardozzi (who it took me forever to remember was Herc from The Wire, thanks to a full head of hair) has a kind of frightening rawness, and Max Casella is typically great playing a witness protection beneficiary who is appalled to see Manfredi show up in Tulsa, believing his own life is in danger.
All of which is to say that while this is lesser Sheridan by any objective measure, and that’s disappointing, I can’t necessarily steer you away from it if you’re on the lookout for a guilty pleasure. Through the two episodes given to critics, it piques just enough interest to merit another episode or two, and if it ends there, so be it; it won’t be time poorly spent. Like Tulsa itself, it may not be the most appealing destination in the world, but come in with the right attitude, and you’ll have more fun than you expected.
Tulsa King premieres Sunday, November 13th on Paramount+
Shane Ryan is a writer and editor. You can find more of his writing and podcasting at Apocalypse Sports, and follow him on Twitter here .
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