The ongoing trend of mass domestic migration from blue states to red states, especially in the wake of Covid, has fundamentally altered the source of economic activity and growth from coastal states such as California and New York to states like Florida and Texas. Furthermore, the majority of Americans no longer inhabit dense urban jungles such as New York City and Los Angeles but instead tend their gardens in the big open suburban sprawls of Atlanta, Houston, or Phoenix.
While many commentators speculate on the political shifts that result from this migration, there’s relatively little attention paid to the cultural shift that happens. The fact that red states are becoming more diverse and cosmopolitan while blue states become less vibrant makes for a great opportunity to explore these themes, yet most storytellers, filmmakers, and screenwriters seem rather oblivious to it.
With a few exceptions, most of them will continue presenting New York City, Los Angeles, and occasionally San Francisco, Boston, and Baltimore as the veritable centers of the world. Not surprisingly, this has led many American audiences to tune out, no longer seeing themselves in the characters on the screen — the woke messaging doesn’t help either.
Finally, this status quo is being challenged by “Yellowstone” creator Taylor Sheridan in his newest TV series “Tulsa King,” which takes on the issue of the great American migration and the culture clash that ensues. While there’s certainly some conflict, the message of the show is refreshingly optimistic and profound.
The story centers on the elderly mafioso Dwight Manfredi (played by Sylvester Stallone) who leaves prison after serving a 25-year sentence. Immediately after his release, his crime family sends him off to Tulsa both as a form of exile and to exploit an opportunity. Despite his misgivings from the outset, Dwight makes the most of this move and eventually establishes himself as a veritable crime lord in his new city.
The premise is brilliant, and the first few episodes definitely benefit from this twist on the usual tropes of crime dramas. The scenery changes from the old, shadowy streets of New York City populated by well-dressed elites to the sunny prairies of Oklahoma occupied by casually dressed ranchers, middle-class suburbanites, and small-town yokels. Not only does Dwight have to adjust to the new physical environment, but, having missed the internet and iPhone revolution during his time in prison, he also has to learn the new ways people connect with one another.
As a result of his cunning and good fortune, Dwight is able to put together a motley, diverse crew who works for him and helps him fight against the biker gang that currently occupies Tulsa. Despite their widely divergent racial and economic backgrounds, these differences are largely incidental. They unite in a common purpose: to get what they want and not be under anyone’s thumb.
This idea is exemplified in Dwight along with the other main characters. His driver Tyson hopes to escape the mediocrity that plagues young men his age. His new partner in crime, Mitch Keller, is a washed-up bull rider and recovering “pillbilly” looking to be more than the cynical owner of a dive bar on the outskirts. Dwight’s old acquaintance from New York, Armand Truisi, looks to recover his lost manhood after fleeing New York City and hiding in anonymity in the Tulsa suburbs. And to a smaller degree, similar ambitions exist in the deadbeats who aim to do more than get high and languish at their medical pot dispensary.
As such, there are relatively few scenes of the gang bonding over Italian dinners and cigars. Instead, they come together to practice shooting, listen to country music, and smoke a joint. To be fair, the show could have used more of these moments and fewer heavy doses of family drama, but the point is made that one’s background matters less than one’s shared interest and the ability to adapt to new circumstances. In other words, it is diversity done right.
And because Stallone is the star, there are also plenty of male-centered themes at play in the show. Much like Rocky, and even Rambo in the later sequels, Dwight Manfredi can’t help but be a male authority figure to the people around him whether they like it or not. For this reason, his greatest regret is being largely absent while his daughter grew into adulthood. He also has a habit of giving advice to the people around him. There are poignant scenes between Tyson and his father, who’s understandably upset about his son drifting into a life of crime.
That said, the show does suffer from a few flaws, mainly its uneven tone and style. At first, it’s a comedy, showing a modern-day Rip Van Winkle clumsily start an Italian-style mafia in the heart of Oklahoma, but it increasingly becomes crime/family drama about an old gangster who’s trying to make up for past mistakes. Correspondingly, the characters change their personality and behavior in unnatural ways. For some reason, Sheridan and Stallone forget that what made the show interesting was the unsuspecting Oklahomans reacting to Dwight, not the “Godfather”/”Sopranos”/”Goodfellas” knock-offs in New York stewing over their grievances.
All this can be forgiven, however, because of the show’s larger portrayal of what’s happening all across the country and willingness to be fair about it. It acknowledges that future and present-day Americans are living in cities like Tulsa, not the big cities on the coasts. And while there might be differences between the blue-state newcomers and the red-state natives, there are surprisingly many similarities that bring these two groups together and help them thrive in a new kind of American community.