Do you know what I hate? I hate it when you spend 25 years in prison keeping shtum for your New York mafia family and on your release they exile you to Oklahoma with some nonsense about it being virgin mob territory and yours for the taking, instead of reinstating you as the capo dei capi’s righthand man. On this matter, Dwight Manfredi (Sylvester Stallone – yes, that Sylvester Stallone) and I are as one.
That, alas, is 75-year-old Dwight’s situation at the beginning of 76-year-old Stallone’s first television venture, Tulsa King (Paramount+). Essentially a pragmatist, he simply punches the new capo unconscious, packs his bag and heads to the Sooner State. There he is startled by grasshoppers, baffled by the youthful slang of his cab driver Tyson (Jay Will), and quickly intrigued by the legal pot dispensary on the outskirts of town. Before they’ve even got to his hotel, he has had Tyson pull over and wait while he nips in and establishes the first node in what I’m sure will soon be a flourishing protection racket. Emerging with his first 20% weekly cash cut from owner Bodhi (Martin Starr), he chucks a wad of notes at Tyson, appoints him his personal driver for $2,000 a week and tells him to buy a Navigator by tomorrow. The hotel receptionist introduces him to the concept of an Uber and apps when he wants to go out that evening. I could ask if we are meant to assume he has been in solitary confinement rather than merely incarcerated for the last quarter of a century, but I remember trying to explain telephone banking to my 70-odd-year-old parents (who have not served any time in prison) and realise that any amount of technical ignorance they want to heap on Dwight is probably only fair.
Anyway. Dwight may be a made man but he is also a Good Guy and always available to right injustice when he sees it. As long as he hasn’t caused it, you may add, which only proves you haven’t understood a thing. Thus he performs a quick beat-down on the car dealer who assumes Tyson (who is Black) is a crack dealer and refuses to sell him the Navigator for cash. “The irony is,” he tells him gently before embarking on the skull-cracking, “you were afraid of the wrong thing.” Thus he performs largely the same service on a man groping a woman at a hen party. And, of course, he goes home with the woman – Stacy, played by Andrea Savage – to lay to rest any doubts we have about Dwight’s potency. She is horrified to learn his true age once they have done the deed. She had him down as a “hard 55”, and over the unpacking of the accuracy of that line we shall quickly pass.
By the end of the first episode, Stacy has been revealed to be a member of the local alcohol, tobacco and firearms police unit – and Dwight, via a mugshot at her morning briefing, revealed to her to be an ex-hitman come to town. There are other threats to Dwight’s peaceably corrupt existence gathering at the margins, too. That’s good. We need some stories with the skull-cracking.
Only one episode was made available for review, which is enough to say that its retro energy (move slowly and break things) and simple moral philosophy (move slowly and break bits of people who are worse than you) is great fun and the easiest viewing you’ll find that has still had some effort and intelligence put into it. It knows exactly what it has to work with and doesn’t threaten to frighten anyone with innovative tricks or boundary-pushing.
Creator Taylor Sheridan (the man behind the hit western Yellowstone) and writer/executive producer Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire) have hand-tooled the series around Stallone, playing exactly to his strengths and on his legacy. There is wisecracking and a few gags but no actual comedic content, because we all remember Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, and nobody wants to go back there. There is action, because that is what he means to us. And there is all the resonance of both character and actor finding themselves out of place – be it in Tulsa or television – and slightly out of time and bringing their years of experience to bear on making a success of their new circumstances. You cannot help but root for them both.