Remember that scene in The Sopranos where Patsy Parisi (Dan Grimaldi) and Burt Gervasi (Artie Pasquale) attempt to shake down a Starbucks only to find that mafia tactics don't work against a giant corporation, and they're forced to look at how their way of life is increasingly irrelevant and out-of-step with a rapidly changing world? Tulsa King, Paramount+'s new mob dramedy, is basically a whole show of that. It has humor, pathos, and names you'll recognize if you're a Sopranos fan.
Tulsa King is a collaboration between creator Taylor Sheridan, showrunner Terence Winter, and star and executive producer Sylvester Stallone. Sheridan is the outrageously prolific (he reportedly wrote the Tulsa King pilot in one day) impresario of the Yellowstone universe, Winter is the creator of Boardwalk Empire and the writer of 25 episodes of The Sopranos, and Sylvester Stallone is Sylvester Stallone. The show is a well-balanced blend of Sheridan's finger-on-the-pulse-of-real-America modern Western, Winter's mob expertise, and Stallone's tough-guy sentimentality. It's also the funniest thing Sheridan has ever done.
Stallone stars as Dwight Manfredi, a New York City mafia capo who in the pilot's opening moments gets released from federal prison after serving a 25-year sentence. But the mob, like everything else, has changed a lot since he went in. The younger men in charge of what's left aren't loyal to him, and there simply isn't enough to go around in the metro area anymore. So they send him to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to open up new business opportunities. He's a fish out of water there, an extremely Italian guy in a town that's never even heard of capicola, let alone knows that it's pronounced "gabagool."
He meets all kinds of interesting characters, including Tyson (Jay Will), a young cabbie who's endlessly bemused by this weird, old guy who's paying him two grand a week to drive him around; Bodhi (Martin Starr), the owner of a medical cannabis dispensary who becomes Dwight's unwilling business partner ("Do I have a choice?" Bodhi asks when presented with the terms of Dwight's protection racket. "Absolutely not," Dwight replies); Mitch (Garrett Hedlund), the owner of a local honky-tonk who Dwight immediately identifies as a fellow ex-con; and Stacy (Andrea Savage), an ATF agent who meets Dwight at a bar and sleeps with him before she knows how old he is or what he does for a living.
Through the first two episodes, Tulsa King does not appear to be a plot-heavy show. It's really a character study about a man trying to adjust to a time and place where he doesn't belong, which is where the show's comedy and emotionality come from. Dwight "the General" Manfredi (his parents named him after Dwight Eisenhower) is a 75-year-old wiseguy who spent a third of his life in prison and is now trying to start over in a world where weed is legal, cash is no longer king, and the crosswalk signal yells "WAIT!" in a startling manner. And don't get him started on pronouns, bafangool! But he's actually surprisingly tolerant — he doesn't mind when a bank manager assumes he and Tyson are together — and even though he's a convicted killer and career criminal, he has principles. He doesn't rat, he treats people with respect, and he beats guys up when they're racist or harass women. His daughter won't speak to him, and he's truly remorseful for not being there for her when he was locked up.
Like Yellowstone's John Dutton (Kevin Costner), Dwight's a bad guy who the show treats like a good guy because he's wish fulfillment for people who dream of being able to say and do whatever they want and be admired for it. The show is overly enamored with Dwight, who should be more of an antihero than he is. You weren't supposed to root for Tony Soprano. Hopefully Dwight becomes more authentically nuanced as the show goes on — Terence Winter knows how to write immoral characters with likable traits — but he probably won't. Part of the secret of Taylor Sheridan's success is that he knows that people still love outlaws with ethical codes, whether they're cowboys or gangsters, and not-so-secretly want to be them. And Stallone is having so much fun in lighter moments and sells Dwight's pain with such sincerity in heavier ones that you will find yourself being won over in spite of yourself.
On a recent episode of the podcast The Watch, the Ringer editor Chris Ryan observed that the Taylor Sheridan universe is turning into an alternative to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As superhero and other franchise IP increasingly dominates Hollywood, Sheridan's shows and movies are one of the few remaining places movie stars can go if they want to do original, character-driven stories set in the real world that are also mainstream popular. No one besides Taylor Sheridan could have gotten Tulsa King made right now. A mafia comedy for adult audiences is not the kind of thing studios are interested in making, but Paramount trusts in Sheridan's ability to make hits so much that it probably don't even feel like Tulsa King is much of a risk. Sylvester Stallone hasn't had a high-profile star vehicle like this in years, and he's never starred in a TV show before. But he saw what Sheridan did for Kevin Costner, so he signed on.
Sheridan is letting other writer-producers who don't fit in to the superhero paradigm into his universe now, too. In 2020, Winter developed a Batman spin-off series about the Gotham City police department for HBO Max, but it didn't work out. Now he's running Tulsa King and bringing a lot of his Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire pals with him, like actors Max Casella and Vincent Piazza, director Allen Coulter, and casting director Meredith Tucker. Winter is getting to do what he does without having to fit it into an IP box — though to be fair, Sylvester Stallone is something of a real-life superhero himself.
Tulsa King is far from perfect. Things happen in a sitcommy way — Dwight walks into Bodhi's dispensary and a few minutes later is running the place — and supporting characters are underdeveloped. But the two episodes sent to critics are a very promising start. It's been a long time since there's been a fun mafia show like this, and the TV landscape missed it. Who would have thought Taylor Sheridan was going to be the person to bring it back?
Premieres: Sunday, Nov. 13 on Paramount+; first two episodes will also air on Paramount Network after Yellowstone on Nov. 20
Who's in it: Sylvester Stallone, Andrea Savage, Max Casella, Martin Starr, Jay Will, Garrett Hedlund, Dana Delany
Who's behind it: Taylor Sheridan (creator), Terence Winter (showrunner), Sylvester Stallone (executive producer)
For fans of: The Sopranos, Yellowstone
How many episodes we watched: 2 of 10