It’s 2022, for a little while yet, and Sylvester Stallone, 76, is starring in his first scripted television series, the likable crime comedy “Tulsa King,” premiering Sunday on Paramount+.
Stallone plays Dwight David Manfredi, “a mug lately out of the jug,” in Frank Loesser’s immortal phrase. Dwight, a Mafia panjandrum, has spent 25 years in prison, having taken the rap (as far as I can figure) for his boss “whacking a guy I actually liked who didn’t deserve it” — so complicated, the mob life — and refusing to rat out anyone to reduce his sentence. His wife has divorced him; his daughter is estranged. But instead of receiving some cushy sinecure for his sacrifice, he finds himself exiled to Tulsa, Okla. to “plant a flag.” This is framed as a gift — the only one under the tree — and Dwight determines to make the best of what he imagines will be a bad thing. But not before laying out cold a disrespectful young capo and thereby painting a target on his own back.
“Tulsa King” was created by Taylor Sheridan, once again framing a series around a venerable screen icon, after “Yellowstone” (Kevin Costner) and its prequel “1883” (Sam Elliott), with Harrison Ford set for the upcoming sequel-prequel “1923.” His co-showrunner is Terence Winter, who created “Boardwalk Empire” and spent several seasons on “The Sopranos,” and “Tulsa King” feels like the chemical bonding of their interests and backgrounds. (Sheridan is from backwater Texas, Winter a child of Brooklyn.) Or those old ads in which chocolate and peanut butter collide to make a Reese’s Cup.
Dwight lands in Tulsa, to be greeted curbside by a grasshopper, a woman with holy water and Tyson (the appealing Jay Will), a jovial cab driver who, before the bags are even out of the car, has been hired as Dwight’s driver and given a wad of cash to buy a Lincoln Navigator. But even before that happens, Dwight has him stop at a nice, peaceful pot dispensary on the way into town, run by Bodhi (an eye-rolling Martin Starr, at his driest and most acerbic). Dwight causes a stir and offers him a deal he can’t refuse.
“I’ll protect you from the gangs,” says Dwight, who only wants 20% of the profits.
“What gangs?” wonders Bodhi.
“And the law.”
Nevertheless, Dwight is not to be trifled with, especially once he learns that Bodhi has half a million dollars sitting around the office. And like Dorothy in Oz, but with muscle, he adds another companion to his party.
Next to be introduced is Stacy (Andrea Savage), whom Dwight meets at a local cowboy bar he will return to regularly. After they sleep together, she’s shocked to learn he’s 75 — she figured him for “a hard 55” — and makes a quick, embarrassed exit. (Kudos to Sheridan and Winter for making Stacy as uncomfortable about this as the viewer himself might be, and for not making Stallone actually play a hard 55. Or 70, for that matter.) As if that weren’t enough, it turns out that Stacy’s a federal agent, and at work the next morning she discovers that Dwight is something more than the fit old guy she picked up the night before. “At least he’s got integrity,” she says, when she learns they were never able to flip him.
Goodness knows, the viewing public has a fondness for mob types behaving badly, and Stallone is convincingly tough, not just for a septuagenarian. Still, there are the customary clues designed to show that Dwight, like the boy in the Shangri-Las song, is good-bad but not evil. Whom he chooses to punch, for example — a racist car dealer, a drunk bothering a woman — and the fact that he seems a lot smarter and nicer and more sensitive than his old criminal associates. “I want to be your friend,” he tells Bodhi, and he might well believe that to be the basis of their relationship. He’s chivalrous. He misses his daughter. (Fatherhood is emerging as a bit of a theme.)
Accordingly, the show is at its best when it steps away from the criminal plotlines and lets Dwight, who expresses some regret over his career path, show his softer side: conversing with bartender Mitch (a winning Garrett Hedlund) at the Bred 2 Buck Saloon; eating ice cream with Tyson; teasing Bodhi while accidentally high; or trying to make sense of a world in which “GM’s gone electric, Dylan’s gone public, a phone is a camera, and coffee — five bucks a cup! And the Stones, bless their hearts, are still on tour.”
Happily, once the expository formalities are out of the way, “Tulsa King” (based on the two episodes available for review) concentrates more on character and comedy. Stallone may not be the world’s finest thespian, but he’s got charm and presence and comes with a lot of cultural capital, and he’s surrounded by expert players, including Max Casella as a mob expat and a-yet-unseen Dana Delany as a rich lady with a horse farm and wildlife preserve. I would be happy enough were Dwight, who finishes the opening episode declaring, “from this point on this city and everything in it belongs to me,” were to content himself comparing boots with fellow barflies and grabbing snacks with Tyson. And that is why I’m not a screenwriter.