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‘Tulsa King: Season One’ (review)

When I’m asked whether or not I’d recommend Tulsa King showrunner Taylor Sheridan’s most famous creation, Yellowstone by one of the few people left in the Western Hemisphere who hasn’t seen it, I reply that I would. When I’m then asked what it’s like, I usually respond “It’s The Godfather for Protestants.” It gets a laugh because it’s true: both are the story of a rich but not patrician family of morally dubious character working to preserve their inheritance outside the normal channels.

How appropriate then that Sheridan’s latest series moves explicitly from the cowboy to that other icon of American cinema, the gangster.

Tulsa King is naturally going to receive comparisons to the cultural force that is Yellowstone, and they’re warranted because the similarities go beyond the surface and give us a nice insight into how Sheridan develops stories for television.

Both shows are built around the charisma of a legendary film actor who has fallen on hard times and is ready for prestige TV.

Both are classical stories transposed into modern times: Yellowstone is about a king and his children keeping their kingdom together, but Tulsa King is that old Russian favorite, the city slicker who has come to the country to get one over on the bumpkins.

Tulsa King is at its heart, a comedy.

A farce, to be specific.

It has moments of menace, suspense, and especially violence but the core appeal of Tulsa King is not gritty crime drama or labyrinthine soap opera subplots, but how much fun you have hanging out with Sylvester Stallone’s character Dwight Manfredi and watching him navigate a world that he is both overqualified to navigate and hopelessly out of touch from.

Yellowstone has acquired some culture war drama for a litany of reasons, but Tulsa King feels more cheerfully subversive.

Early in the season, almost every native of Tulsa remarks on how little crime there is. Dwight is a stickler for old time manners and work ethic, he’s a stand-in for the older viewer to get some shots in on the kids these days, but he’s also the one bringing all the problems with him. He’s a biblical plague of drama telling guys to go to college and tuck in their shirts.

He’d be insufferable if it was for Stallone who has been given a role besides Rocky and Rambo that allows him to really use everything in his arsenal for the first time since Cop Land. He finds shades of tragedy in Manfredi when he’s discussing how much of his life he’s lost to prison that is startling, he’s also got the quality Sean Connery had that he remains likable even when he’s threatening serious violence. Manfredi is a popular east coast American myth: the noble gangster but Stallone gives him enough authenticity that we can be persuaded to fall for the myth one more time.

Martin Starr is also deserving of praise as Bodhi, the owner of a medicinal weed dispensary that Dwight strong arms into a partnership. He and Jay Will’s Tyson Mitchell, Manfredi’s gangster obsessed driver act mainly as comedic foils for Stallone’s aging felon. The modern guy who navigates the city with Uber and FastPay and has only seen guns in the movies. Both of these roles could have been pretty thankless– reminiscent of the coterie of dorks Robert DeNiro schools in The Intern, but the scripts give them time to layer their characters and we invest in them in a genuine way.

Extras include a number of well-produced featurettes.

Tulsa King isn’t perfect– it’s a much shallower show than Yellowstone and it isn’t for everybody. It’s also a very middlebrow show for a mob drama on a streaming service. There’s plenty of cursing and violence but the overall appeal is to see the old guy school everyone who has underestimated him. Manfredi is very much your dad’s idea of what a gangster was like “back in the day.”

That said, when the show works, it really does work.

It finds jet black humor in the intersection of the mundane and the violent: like when a driving test turns into a hit in Episode Three, or when the follow up killing devolves briefly into incredulity over the intended victim’s choice in sugar substitute.

It’s not the Coen Brothers, but it’s (dis)honest work.


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