Sometimes, you just know when something is a fit. Legend will have it (and that legend is true) that Yellowstone creator Taylor Sheridan wrote Tulsa King‘s first draft script in less than 24 hours while specifically gunning for Sylvester Stallone to play the lead role. Paramount, for obvious reasons, ran with Sheridan’s judgment and this project because people cannot get enough of those darn-fangled Yellowstone shows he created (there are two already and another few on the way). Granted, I simply cannot sit down and enjoy that franchise despite a few attempts, yet it’s impossible to deny that Sheridan’s one of the few souls who have cracked the TV code when there are a billion competing shows vying for eyeballs.
Tulsa King will undoubtedly capitalize upon debuting on the same night as the Kevin Costner flagship series’ fifth season return, but Stallone’s show feels entirely different. Boardwalk Empire creator Terence Winter directs this joint with Sly pulling out all the stops as a mafia boss who did decades of hard time and expects some payback. What does he receive? Let’s just say that Tulsa’s a nice little city, and it sure would be a shame if something… you catch the drift. Sheridan initially did write this little ditty with a Kansas City setting, but the move to Tulsa works out well for the mob to come in and newly bust chops. It’s unexpected and funny and also landing on the heels of some kind of cultural emergence for the former Oil Capitol of the World.
It’s fitting, really. Not too long ago, Damon Lindelof decided that Watchmen‘s Doctor Manhattan should hide out in Tulsa (perfect because who would suspect?), and Sterlin Harjo chose the surrounding area to allow Reservation Dogs to dole out a worthy Indigenous perspective (although those characters would love to leave the place). As well, characters do tend to be unwillingly sent to Tulsa. This happened to shifty Gary on Justified and Chandler on Friends. Now, Sly’s Dwight “The General” Manfredi finds himself with the run of the city, and he’s not thrilled but is working with it. Stallone, on the other hand, is having far too much fun with this role.
It is glamourous stuff, y’all.
Also, we know this is a “fish out of water” story because this tough-talking New York mafioso can’t ditch those tiny cups, even in a honky-tonk world.
More than that, we’ve got a big icon in a small pond, so to speak. Because even though Stallone has done plenty of projects (including voicing King Shark in The Suicide Squad) that don’t involve playing Rocky Balboa or John Rambo, he’s still synonymous with those roles. Even when he pushes back at where the Rocky franchise is going, he can’t fully separate himself from that looming physicality. So, it’s easy to forget that Stallone can do much more.
One must recall a certain Rambo scene, if you will, when the PTSD came pouring out near the end of a movie where Stallone remained mostly wordless. He can turn on a dime like that, and I was pleasantly struck (during an Episode 2 moment) by an emotional outpouring. I did not expect any of Dwight Manfredi’s exploits to hit me in the feels, but it happened. And there’s something really magical about watching Sly Stallone stretch outside the action box in a way that works (as opposed to those projects that didn’t work), so don’t forget those comedy chops.
Real talk time: Tulsa King‘s draft script may have been written almost off the cuff by Taylor Sheridan, but it’s somehow the role that Stallone has been building up to portray. He’s also as good at those one-liners as his contemporary, Arnold Schwarzenegger, although Sly didn’t receive as much of an opportunity to show it off back in the day. Yet Dwight is a layered kind of guy, and Stallone recently declared that he’s “never worked so hard in my life.” Although I’ve only watched the few episodes provided for critics thus far, I will agree that he ain’t joking. As well, it’s amusing to see Stallone interacting with a cast of Okie characters, two of whom are portrayed by Andrea Savage and Garrett Hedlund. He is doing the most with his look…
Yet the first episodes mainly serve to introduce Dwight. Sly can still throw a punch, and he’s down to trash marijuana dispensaries to rustle up some “protection” cash. It’s a very amplified, 2022 version of Bobby De Niro’s Vito Corleone that Sheridan drops into view. Ultimately, however, Dwight is a pretty “good” dude for a mafioso. He’s getting to know the feel of a woman after two decades behind bars, and he’s attempting to rekindle an old connection that ends up being, well, complicated.
Throughout, the show lays ground for making Tulsa an actual character that stands on its own. The series was truly shot within Oklahoma (and not on some Atlanta soundstage), OKC as well as Tulsa, where local landmarks rear their head. I don’t want to spoil one key attraction that showcases a pivotal (and emotional) moment for Dwight, so we’ll probably talk about that later. However, there are plenty of local sights like the famed Golden Driller (which is exactly what it sounds like) and smatterings of Route 66 on display. Tulsa happens to be an odd breed of city, where skyscrapers somehow provide the backdrop for livestock wandering out into city streets. It happens!
In other words, Tulsa is the perfect contradictory setting for a show like Tulsa King, where Sly is playing a character who’s trying to comprehend new social mores and the Internet and simple things like taking an Uber. You can tell he’s enjoying the hell out of this gig, and it’s always palpable and wonderful to see someone doing what they love for a living. Stallone’s still beefing with a Rocky producer, but I can tell that he’s forged a genuine partnership with Winter and Sheridan. They contribute their own sensibilities, obviously with Winter’s tried-and-true ways with mob-related subject matter and Sheridan’s prolific knack for writing. He’s transformed the Western on TV, and he’s brought Stallone to the small screen. Not too shabby for the “good cop” from Sons Of Anarchy, right?
RIP to Deputy Hale, but long live Paramount+’s Tulsa King, which premieres on November 13.