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Movie stars head to TV in the winning dramas 'Yellowstone' and 'Tulsa King'

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Taylor Sheridan surprised the TV industry and brought Kevin Costner to television by co-creating "Yellowstone," a hit series that's returning this Sunday on the Paramount network. But Sheridan has another ace up his sleeve. He's co-created a new series built around another veteran movie star. This series, called "Tulsa King," stars Sylvester Stallone, and it premieres Sunday on the Paramount+ streaming service. Our TV critic David Bianculli has these reviews.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: "Yellowstone" and "Tulsa King" aren't connected in terms of setting characters or storylines, but Taylor Sheridan, who had a hand in creating both shows and has written or co-written many episodes of each, makes sure to fill each program with the same winning formula. There's a strong, rugged man at the center and at least as many equally strong women either fighting alongside him or proving very worthy adversaries. There's a sense of time passing and the importance of family. And the setting, the environment, is as crucial an element as almost any character or plot point. After almost a year off, the new season of "Yellowstone" begins with rancher John Dutton, played by Kevin Costner, reluctantly becoming the new governor of Colorado. This season resets the alliances that define the ranchers' friends and enemies, and provides entertaining flashbacks showing the origins of some long-running romances. But the thing weighing most on Dutton isn't his new political power. It's how long he's been away from the Yellowstone ranch he loves. In this scene, he returns after a long absence to be greeted by Carter, the boy taken in by his daughter. Finn Little, the actor playing Carter, has shot up like a weed between seasons, and the script, written by Taylor Sheridan, takes advantage of that fact and has Costner's Dutton reacting uncomfortably to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "YELLOWSTONE")

FINN LITTLE: (As Carter) It's Carter.

KEVIN COSTNER: (As John Dutton) I know who you are. Jesus Christ. It's been a while.

LITTLE: (As Carter) You want me to saddle one?

COSTNER: (As John Dutton) Wish I had the time, but I don't.

LITTLE: (As Carter) You're the governor now.

COSTNER: (As John Dutton) Yeah.

LITTLE: (As Carter) The big man.

COSTNER: (As John Dutton) So they say.

LITTLE: (As Carter) I miss our rides.

COSTNER: (As John Dutton) Yeah, I miss them, too. We'll do them again. Quit eating the fertilizer.

LITTLE: (As Carter) Huh?

COSTNER: (As John Dutton) Quit growing.

LITTLE: (As Carter) Why?

COSTNER: (As John Dutton) Because it - because it freaks me out. You're a living reminder of how much time I don't have. If you grow a beard, you're fired.

BIANCULLI: The passage of time and the sense of a man out of place is even more pronounced in "Tulsa King." This series presents Sylvester Stallone as a man released from prison after 25 years. He never ratted on his Mafia bosses and is rewarded upon his release - well, maybe rewarded isn't the right word - with an assignment to relocate to Oklahoma to start running an operation there. Stallone, as Dwight David Manfredi, has a goatee, a weary demeanor and almost no patience whatsoever. Even when Pete, the aging Mafia don, awards Tulsa to Dwight, the newly released ex-con isn't exactly grateful. Within a minute, when another Mafioso begins giving Dwight some attitude, Dwight responds with a punch that knocks the guy cold.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TULSA KING")

SYLVESTER STALLONE: (As Dwight Manfredi) Pete, you remember my wife, Marie? She divorced me when I went inside. And my daughter, Tina, I haven't talked to her in 18 years. She hates me. I took an oath, and I honored it. And I kept my mouth shut for 25 [expletive] years. And now all I got to my name is a few bucks, my suit in moth balls, this watch and a [expletive] pinky ring that you gave me. Now, you got the balls to tell me that after everything I've been through, after everything I've lost, after everything I've done for this family - your family - there's nothing left for me.

DOMENICK LOMBARDOZZI: (As Charles Invernizzi) Hey, you don't understand how this works. They told you where the [expletive] to go. That's it.

STALLONE: (As Dwight Manfredi) I don't understand this, and I've made my bones when you were in diapers.

LOMBARDOZZI: (As Charles Invernizzi) Well, now you're wearing diapers.

(CROSSTALK)

BIANCULLI: But this series wouldn't be called "Tulsa King" if Dwight doesn't go to Tulsa, so he does. And Stallone, as Dwight, is in virtually every frame of the first episode and almost as many in the second. "Tulsa King" is a bit like "Rectify," the Sundance series about a man released after a long stint in prison. But Taylor Sheridan, who co-wrote these first episodes with Terence Winter from "Boardwalk Empire" and "The Sopranos," wants to have some fun with the idea and the character, too. And Stallone is all too happy to play along and show off some comic timing he rarely gets to display. Here he is, newly arrived in Tulsa, having a quickly escalating conversation with his cabdriver, Tyson, played by Jay Will.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TULSA KING")

STALLONE: (As Dwight Manfredi) Not any churches around here.

JAY WILL: (As Tyson) It's the Bible Belt, my man. And we're in the buckle. What's this - a wedding, a funeral?

STALLONE: (As Dwight Manfredi) Business.

WILL: (As Tyson) What kind of business?

STALLONE: (As Dwight Manfredi) The none of your [expletive] business kind of business.

WILL: (As Tyson, laughter) I like that. Gangster got to be a gangster.

STALLONE: (As Dwight Manfredi) What'd you call me?

WILL: (As Tyson) Say what?

STALLONE: (As Dwight Manfredi) You call me a gangster.

WILL: (As Tyson) I ain't call you no gangster. I said a gangster got to be a gangster.

STALLONE: (As Dwight Manfredi) Wouldn't that make me a gangster?

WILL: (As Tyson) Look, man, you obviously ain't met no Black folks, so...

STALLONE: (As Dwight Manfredi) I met more Black folks than you can count.

WILL: (As Tyson) Then you would know you can call anybody a gangster. It's like saying they cool.

STALLONE: (As Dwight Manfredi) You think a gangster is cool?

WILL: (As Tyson, laughter).

BIANCULLI: Tyson becomes a regular character, joining a strong cast that also includes Martin Starr from "Silicon Valley" and Andrea Savage from "Veep." And only two episodes were provided for preview, neither of which included even a glimpse of another cast regular, one of my favorite actresses, Dana Delany. But she'll be showing up any episode now, and I'll be watching. I like both of these shows and the meaty roles they give to their central players. It used to be that movie stars of the stature of Kevin Costner and Sylvester Stallone would never stoop to appear on television. But the pop culture landscape has changed so much that they're finding some of their career-best roles on TV. And these two actors in particular have the same man to thank.

DAVIES: David Bianculli is a professor of television studies at Rowan University. He reviewed the return of "Yellowstone" on Sunday on Paramount and the premiere of the new series "Tulsa King" on Paramount+, also on Sunday.

(SOUNDBITE OF JULIAN LAGE'S "THE RAMBLE")

DAVIES: If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you've missed, like our conversation with director Steven Spielberg or with historian Matthew Delmont about the experience of African Americans in World War II, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF JULIAN LAGE'S "THE RAMBLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.