Ray Richmond: ‘Tulsa King’ joins TV’s rich legacy of shows centered on organized crime

TV loves itself some mobsters. There’s no getting around it. From Tony Soprano to Nucky Thompson to Frank “The Fixer” Tagliano, we’re enchanted by the bad guys and what they bring to the table (generally menace and blood, not necessarily in that order). Shows like “The Sopranos,” “Peaky Blinders” and “Boardwalk Empire” – as well as “The Untouchables” in the early 1960s – have captivated us and generated plenty of awards attention in the bargain.

And now here comes another show with malice in its heart, if a wink in its eye, looking to compete for some Emmy attention: “Tulsa King,” the Paramount+ series that launched its first season last November and is plotting to enter production on season two soon (likely early this summer).  It’s a crime dramedy set in Tulsa, Oklahoma that stars Sylvester Stallone in his first scripted starring role on TV.

Stallone portrays New York Mafia capo Dwight ‘The General” Manfredi and catches up with him just when he’s released from prison after 25 years and unceremoniously exiled by his boss to set up shop in Tulsa. Realizing that his mob family may not have his best interests at heart, Dwight slowly builds a crew from a group of unlikely characters to help him establish a new criminal enterprise in a place that’s about as far from New York as Saturn is from Boise.

Those backing the show (which was created by Taylor Sheridan of “Yellowstone” fame) have opted to submit “Tulsa King” for Emmy consideration as a comedy, with Stallone put up as lead comedy actor. It makes sense when you consider there so much thicker competition among dramas. Not that either genre is a cakewalk.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at a dozen of the more intriguing mob-themed shows that TV has produced, heading back six decades or so.

  • THE UNTOUCHABLES (1959-63) – Not the 1987 movie starring Kevin Costner, Sean Connery and Robert De Niro but the classic black-and-white series that ran on ABC for four seasons. It starred Robert Stack as the uncorruptible Justice Department chief Eliot Ness, a real-life fed who took on Al Capone and the Chicago mob back in the day. It won two Emmys in 1960 – for lead series actor (Stack) and for its editing.
  • CRIME STORY (1986-88) – Michael Mann produced this NBC drama set in the early 1960s that dealt with Chicago Police Detective Lieut. Mike Torello (the underrated Dennis Farina) and his pursuit of organized crime from Chicago to Las Vegas – in particular a hotshot young mobster named Ray Luca (Anthony Denison). Show was nominated for three Emmys – notably for its cinematography and hairstyling.
  • WISEGUY (1987-1990) – This exceptional series starred Ken Wahl as Vinnie Terranova, an undercover agent whose job is to infiltrate criminal organizations at great threat to his continued health. His superior officer is played by a pre-“Breaking Bad”/”Better Call Saul” Jonathan Banks. Great writing, great bad guys. The show was nominated for seven Emmys, including top drama series in 1989.
  • THE LAST DON (1997) – Not technically a series but a mere miniseries, it’s included here because it was so first-rate. Based on a novel by “The Godfather” writer Mario Puzo, “Last Don” deals with a mob clan’s various travails, starring Danny Aiello, Joe Mantegna, Kirstie Alley and Daryl Hannah. It earned three Emmy bids, including for top miniseries and for Mantegna and Alley’s supporting work. They wuz robbed!
  • THE SOPRANOS (1999-2007) – The mob series against which all others will forever be compared (and possibly every other drama, period), “The Sopranos” tells the story of a Jersey-based Italian-American mob clan with an ingenious mix of darkness and mirth. It won 21 Emmys, including three for Outstanding Drama Series, six for its writing, and three apiece for stars James Gandolfini and Edie Falco.
  • BROTHERHOOD (2206-08) – An underappreciated, very dark three-season entry, “Brotherhood” examines an Irish family the Caffee brothers on Rhode Island. One brother (Jason Clarke) is a local politician while another (Jason Isaacs) is aligned with the Irish Mob. Annabeth Gish also has a key role in a series that never received any Emmy attention, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying.
  • BOARDWALK EMPIRE (2010-14) – Martin Scorsese co-produced this classic HBO Prohibition-era drama set in Atlantic City in the 1920s that starred Steve Buscemi as a local politico named Nucky Thompson who consorts with everyone – from the aristocracy to the lowlife gangsters – in an effort to survive. It won nearly as many Emmys as “The Sopranos” (20), mostly below the line.
  • LILYHAMMER (2012-14) – This comedy-drama comes about as close as any in TV history to the storyline and vibe of “Tulsa King.” The starred Steve Van Zandt of “Sopranos” and Springsteen fame as a former New York-based gangster named Frank “The Fixer” Tagliano who’s trying to start a new life in middle-of-nowhere Lillehammer, Norway after getting placed in the Federal Witness Protection Program. A fun show, well produced.
  • MOB CITY (2013-14) – Frank Darabont, writer-director of “The Shawshank Redemption” created this neo-noir TNT crime drama set in the gangster and corruption-encrusted Los Angeles of the 1940s. It’s based on the true story of the Los Angeles Police Department’s battle against Bugsy Siegel and the L.A. Mob. It was nominated for three Emmys in 2014 (for sound editing, visual effects and hairstyling).
  • PEAKY BLINDERS (2013-22) – This period crime drama is set in Great Britain, in case you thought America and Italy had cornered the market on mobsters. It’s based on a real-life criminal gang that terrorized England in the wake of World War I, with a brilliant cast led by Cillian Murphy. The show found a much larger international audience after a deal was signed to have Netflix carry it worldwide in 2021.
  • OZARK (2017-22) – Jason Bateman, Laura Linney and Julia Garner lead the exceptional cast of this Netflix drama about a Chicago financial advisor who is forced to uproot his family and move to the Missouri Ozarks after he runs afoul of a Mexican drug cartel for which he’s laundering money. It’s won four Emmys, three by the phenomenal Garner’s supporting work and one for Bateman’s direction.
  • GODFATHER OF HARLEM (2019-23) – This show would get an awful lot more attention if it didn’t show on MGM+ (formerly Epix). A prequel to the 2007 feature “American Gangster,” it stars Oscar winner Forrest Whitaker as the real-life NYC gangster Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson, who in the early 1960s gets out of prison and winds up taking over the Harlem heroin market. Why? Because he can.

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