TV series review: Tulsa King – season one (Paramount+, 2022)
When you hear there’s going to be a show which involves Terence Winter, not only a producer for The Sopranos but the creator and showrunner of Boardwalk Empire, one of your favourite actors plus several other people who were in Boardwalk Empire, and starring that guy you’ve recently re-evaluated as an actor and actually quite like now, you pay attention. Especially as it also turns out to be mobster related. Why hello there.
Created by Taylor Sheridan (Yellowstone, a show I watched a random (hrm-hm) episode of and got off on the entirely wrong foot with and have avoided ever since), Tulsa King kicks off with New York mafia capo Dwight “The General” Manfredi (Sylvester Stallone) being released from jail after serving a 25 year sentence for murder. He has kept his mouth shut all that time, despite numerous attempts over the years at getting him to talk, and is expecting to be rewarded for his unwavering loyalty – but the Invernizzi Family’s ailing boss, Pete (AC Peterson), has other ideas. Despite being like a brother to Pete, the aging General is to
be put to pasture go to Tulsa and set up shop there, underboss Charles “Chickie” Invernizzi (Domenick Lombardozzi) explains. Expand the Family’s interests, break new ground.
It sure feels more like an insult than a promotion. Tulsa, Oklahoma, is like going to the middle of nowhere. It’s tiny by New York City standards, and they’re definitely not used to having a slick mafioso around.
At the beginning, Tulsa King has some parallels to Lilyhammer, another show where a New York mobster goes to Hicksville (albeit for entirely different reasons), gets some more or less unqualified locals to be his crew and amusing culture clashes ensue. The locals aren’t used to dealing with the mafia, so the mobster has no real problems going in and asserting his dominance. While Tulsa King starts off much like a black comedy, because parts of it are hilarious, as the episodes delve further into the story, we realise that the black comedy is only a tiny part of a much larger beast – whereas it was always at the forefront of Lilyhammer. Tulsa King isn’t a crime comedy, it turns out. It’s a crime drama that happens to occasionally be very darkly funny.
Another difference from Lilyhammer is that the locals who become the capo’s new crew aren’t actually yokels. Young Tyson (Jay Will) may be a little naive at times, but he’s no idiot. Pot dispensary owner Bodhi (Martin Starr) and his staff might seem like it at first glance, but they’re not. Bar owner Mitch (Garrett Hedlund), an ex-con, recognises another ex-con when he sees one and strikes up a mutually beneficial friendship with Dwight. Lilyhammer had a few Norwegian rednecks for sidekicks, Dwight actually has a proper crew.
One of the things I really like about Dwight is that he might seem like a stereotypical mobster character on the surface, but it’s quickly made clear that there’s a lot more to him than that – apparently kind of like Sylvester Stallone himself, which isn’t a coincidence. I do love me a gangster with layers! Dwight has a daughter, Tina (Tatiana Zappardino), but hasn’t spoken to her in 18 years, so she’s (understandably) resentful. He desperately wants to patch things up with her, but you can’t just show up, flash some cash, and think you’re going to win Father of the Year. It’s not that simple. Stallone is great as Dwight. He’s a perfect mix of suave charisma and lethal danger. The nickname “The General” is fitting, because if he tells you to do something, you’re not really going to argue with him.
The first episodes set up Dwight and his new operations in Tulsa, and introduces us not just to the gang, but also people like Stacy Beale (Andrea Savage), who make life a bit more complicated than first expected. Her character is a little all over the place, but maybe that’s deliberate. Another complication is Armand Truisi (Max Casella), another New York mobster, who has been hiding out in Tulsa for a good number of years, and isn’t thrilled when he realises Dwight is there.
As the episodes go from mostly funny to mostly serious, the primary antagonists are introduced: Caolan Waltrip (Ritchie Coster) and his biker gang. You might think the main clash would be with the Family back in NYC, but nope, not really. Despite Vince Antonacci (Vincent Piazza, underutilised) wanting to return the broken jaw Dwight gave him, and despite Chickie being so sick and tired of being in the permashadow of “Uncle Dwight” that he might just go off on his own and do something stupid.
Episode 7 is amazing for a lot of reasons, and, while I do admit to some personal bias here, whenever a script gives Domenick Lombardozzi a chance to shine, that man fucking shines. Give him a character with a raging internal struggle of wildly conflicting emotions but who still has to keep it together outwardly and something magic happens. Again: I do like my gangsters layered. On the surface Chickie is just an arsehole, but once you scratch that surface you realise that he has such an inferiority complex compared to Dwight that it’s not even funny, and somehow you still end up feeling a tiny bit of sympathy for the guy. Briefly.
Those glimpses of vulnerability, those cracks in the tough guy armour, are positively riveting. But then I also love the juxtaposition of hard-as-nails mobster who tucks his ailing father into bed, or concerned father who wants to reconcile with his daughter and meet his grandkids, or, which is one of the reasons I love Boardwalk Empire, consoles his deaf child after a bullying incident. I’m thrilled to see that in Tulsa King.
Less thrilling is that it’s only nine episodes, despite ten being listed on IMDb and other places (who’s heard of a 9-episode season anyway?). Some episodes are only about 35 minutes as well – including the final episode, which made it feel rushed and, frankly, unsatisfying. Not to give anything away, but several major plot points were wrapped up a little too quickly/neatly, I was left with a big “wait, so that’s it?! All of that happened and you’re just gonna leave it there?!” I can only hope those chickens come home to roost in the next season (already greenlit), because both of the events I’m thinking of were a little too big to simply sweep under the carpet.
What is there in store for season two? Maybe Margaret (Dana Delany) will turn out to be an actual love interest for Dwight, instead of someone to merely flirt with. Either way I’d like to see more of her character. And Tina, for that matter. What will Goodie Carangi (Chris Caldovino) make of Oklahoma? We’ll have to wait and see.
Overall, I enjoyed Tulsa King, but I think it has a few teething problems. First seasons of a show can be a bit uneven because the show is still trying to find its feet, so I try to keep an open mind. First seasons always have the most heavy lifting to do: it needs to introduce the main characters and their backgrounds, the setting, the premise, the themes, and also try to find out what kind of a show it wants to be, and then by the time the second season comes along, it knows what it is and what it’s doing. The Tulsa King you’re watching in the first episode is really not the same Tulsa King you’re watching by the season finale, but hopefully it’s all sorted out in the second season, because I’m really looking forward to seeing more of it now that all the setup has been done.
It’s good, but it could have been better, you know? Or maybe I just went into it with sky high expectations that it couldn’t possibly live up to. But either way I’m eagerly awaiting season two.
4 out of 5 runaway horses.