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The old man-ification of TV is here

Yellowstone has lured a litany of movie legends to take over television in shows like Tulsa King and 1923.

Sylvester Stallone riding a horse in a paddock.
Sylvester Stallone stars as Dwight Manfredi in Paramount+’s Tulsa King.
Brian Douglas/Paramount+
Aja Romano is a culture reporter for Vox, focusing on criticism and the ethics of culture. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot.

Paramount+’s surprise hit series Tulsa King opens with Sylvester Stallone, our titular king, emerging from prison after a quarter-century spent taking the rap for his mafia family. You might expect him to be disoriented by decades of change, especially after the Family unexpectedly exiles him to dusty Oklahoma to become a prairie overlord. But no, this is just business as usual: En route from the airport, he spots a local, perfectly legal weed dispensary and casually decides to take it over using an M.O. somewhere between insistence and blackmail, even though there’s nothing untoward afoot.

A single shakedown later and Sly’s got the owner under his thumb and a burgeoning criminal enterprise. He slides back into his groove with such ease and familiarity that you know he’s one of the special ones, equally at home in a mob-approved suit or a cowboy hat — as long as he’s the one in control.

Elsewhere, the second episode of FX’s The Old Man begins with a much more classic vista: A stunning Old West-style backdrop of a mountainous region — perhaps meant to be Afghanistan, but filmed in California’s San Jacinto mountains. As we watch, Bill Heck, playing a younger version of the show’s star, Jeff Bridges, appears in the distance, riding a black horse out of the desert to greet Christopher Redman, playing a young John Lithgow. The two men discuss the divergent paths that will eventually lead them to become enemies across CIA lines, with young Jeff Bridges arguing passionately that in a world where the moral rules are murky, good men know each other instinctively. Young Lithgow, the company man, isn’t so sure.

Meanwhile, Paramount+’s limited series 1923 lands in still another part of the West, where a disgruntled sheepherder accuses Harrison Ford’s Jake Dutton of hoarding much-sought grazing lands around Montana’s mighty Yellowstone region. Ford, despite having grown somewhat frail in old age, still intimidates without raising his voice. “I have what my family fought for,” he growls, “Do you want to fight me for it, too?”

Individually, each of these shows evinces a markedly different tone and style — mob dramedy, spy thriller, western — but together, they form variations on a theme. All deliver a nostalgic machismo across rugged landscapes, testosterone-fueled genres in gritty environments, with themes of the American West. They’re part of a striking television trend ushered in by the massive success of Taylor Sheridan’s brutal Yellowstone, and they have one more thing in common with that show, which stars Kevin Costner. They’re headed up by the biggest silver-screen stars of the 1970s, ’80s, ’90s, and, thanks to our baby boomer-infused culture, arguably today.

Rocky, Han Solo, and even the Dude have all come to play formidable men on TV

Of all these series, Tulsa King is the most offbeat. The show sees Stallone using that medicinal weed store to become a full-on kingpin, all while dealing with the fallout from his old life. In between, he picks up strays and coaxes them into his ragtag crime gang; the novelty of all of this happening in Tulsa stays high thanks to recurring bits like a lone horse casually wandering through downtown, or locals double-taking over Stallone’s age. (His character, Dwight Manfredi, is a sprightly 75.)

Tulsa King owes its popularity in large part to that of Yellowstone. Although the newer show streams exclusively on Paramount+, it premiered on the Paramount cable network following the November 13 episode of Yellowstone. The result was a ratings coup and a surge in interest that drove a record number of signups to the streaming platform and resulted in an instant season two renewal. Tulsa King isn’t connected to the Yellowstone universe — at least not yet — but it was created by Sheridan.

The latest pair of veteran actors to drop into the proper Yellowstone-verse via 1923 are veritable Hollywood royalty. Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren star as the patriarch and matriarch of the ruthless Dutton clan in the limited series Yellowstone prequel. 1923 is itself a sequel to another Yellowstone prequel, 1883, which saw film legend Sam Elliot join country music powerhouses Tim McGraw and Faith Hill as they battled the wilds of the Oregon Trail on their way to settle in Montana.

The Old Man isn’t a Sheridan special, but it rounds out the trend with Jeff Bridges playing a man who went MIA from the CIA decades ago, spending his life in hiding, and now finds himself actively on the run.

It’s tempting to ask why all of this is happening now. Do these aging Hollywood veterans with nothing to prove — Stallone turns 77 this year, Bridges is 73, Ford 81 — find some allure in grim stories about the American men that has hitherto eluded them?

Perhaps. For some, it’s the appeal of prestige TV. Higher budgets, less stringent production schedules, and nuanced storytelling all mean that veteran actors can find meaty roles that lend them acclaim without having to don a superhero cape and join the MCU. In Stallone’s case, the appeal was largely personal: Sheridan reportedly wrote Tulsa King’s cheeky pilot episode on a whim, just for him.

It may also partly be a matter of overpopulation. With so many stars aging up but not out of their careers, it’s inevitable that many of the ones who don’t feature in movies like Top Gun: Maverick will find other outlets.

For the stars of Yellowstone, 1923, and even Tulsa King, part of the appeal surely lies with Sheridan, who’s proven to be a kind of red-state whisperer. Born and raised on a Texas ranch, Sheridan spent decades as a successful actor before becoming a far more successful screenwriter, penning a string of well-received films about desperate, destitute Middle America, including Sicario (2015) and Hell or High Water (2016). These established his unique gift for delivering a version of disenfranchised Americans — usually poverty-stricken, frequently but not always white — that transcended ideological lines.

The powerful family at the center of Yellowstone, however, embodies what it means to be “franchised” in America. That makes Costner’s casting as the head of the Dutton family a crucial choice. For one thing, it’s impossible to envision a character like John Dutton — owner of the largest fictional ranch in the United States — being played by someone with less visible stature. For another, it’s hard to imagine another movie star better suited for the particular audience demographic Paramount (which was previously male-focused Spike TV, and before that TNN, starting out as the Nashville Network) wants to reach.

But most of all, Costner in particular is famously associated with roles that flout established systems of authority — like the wayward soldier of Dances With Wolves, the maverick lawman Wyatt Earp, and, of course, Robin Hood. When Costner sets out to play an aging patriarch determined to pass his primary values of win-at-all-costs ruthlessness onto his children, he barely even comes across as an anti-hero; he’s just a red-blooded American.

This all holds doubly true for his fictional ancestor in 1923, Harrison Ford. If Costner descends from a long chain of iconoclastic heroes, Ford is a vintage model near the top of the assembly line. Together, he and Mirren represent a nod to classic Hollywood tradition; even the promo posters for 1923 feel like vintage bills for a John Ford Western or a sweeping O. Selznick melodrama.

Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren in 1920’s era Western dress lean on a fence in the Montana countryside.
Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren in 1923.
James Minchin III / Paramount+

The aesthetic of 1923 may be a throwback, but the themes are still familiar to Yellowstone fans. The Dutton family’s conflicts still revolve around land rights, with the ultimate existential truth — that no one can ever really own the land — always pushed aside to discomfit another day.

Sheridan isn’t involved with The Old Man, which comes to us from Black Sails’ writers Robert Levine and Jonathan E. Steinberg. But while Black Sails deconstructed a range of social systems through the lens of destitute pirates, The Old Man seems fully committed to the Sheridan aesthetic, at least initially; its pilot episode takes place almost entirely in the dark and in the dust, every inch an arty Western noir. (It actually opens in Vermont, though, before Bridges’s character, pursued by the CIA, goes on the run to parts unknown.) And while the show gradually opens up to be an uneven international spy thriller, it continues to feel like a Western, thematically and visually.

Throughout the show, Lithgow and Bridges interact with each other and the world around them very deliberately, as if years of making high-powered decisions and carrying secrets has strained their speech. Yet where unease about their individual roles in these high-stakes global conflicts would be, we find instead mainly a grim determination; Lithgow to save himself and Bridges to save his family. It may be no country for old men, but this old man has a very particular set of skills, etc.

On these shows, any larger conflicts are ultimately window-dressing for the escapist fantasy of self-made authority that Yellowstone and its ilk offer, one where power begets more power, not consequences. This model holds true across what we might dub the old maniverse. In it, the wisdom of Hollywood’s elders lends itself not to passivity and weakness but to unapologetic traditionalism straight out of the Jesus and John Wayne playbook.

The lure of greed, fortune, and power

There’s a reason, after all, that most of these stories are married in some way to the American West. The lure of wide open spaces isn’t just about attaining property and power, but about becoming a self-made individual. Men like Ford, Stallone, Bridges, and Costner have embodied that mythos on our screens; they’re the ones who can teach us how to become fearsome beholden-to-no-one forces to be reckoned with.

On the one hand, there’s something familiar about this trend. Capitalizing on rosy traditionalism is not new. But by allowing characters like Bridges’s Dan and Stallone’s Dwight to represent the boomer perspective, these shows manage to repackage consumerist nostalgia in a way that feels authoritative. And by using actors whose popularity spans multiple decades and generations, they’re also arguably making such frameworks palatable not just for boomers but for Gen X and younger generations.

These characters express a generational anxiety about aging, whether it’s a frustration with kids these days, fear of becoming obsolete, or exasperation at all this newfangled technology. Tulsa King, for example, turns all of these tropes into comedic running gags, while they linger, acknowledged but mostly not dwelt upon, in the background of Bridges’s life in Old Man. It’s a concern, but a concern held lightly, and mostly with dignity, masking the greater power struggle they face.

After all, every generation faces a reckoning with old age and has to negotiate its own fantasy of maintaining power and relevance. While horror movies of late have dealt with anxiety about old age by treating aging itself as a kind of unstoppable horror villain, the old maniverse gives us confident, powerful men who simply eye-roll at their advancing age and get on with it. (This shrug was almost literal in Bridges’s case. In 2020, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which required him to step away from filming The Old Man, complete cancer treatment, survive Covid, and then resume filming, shaken but not deterred.)

This approach to generational difference, too, is a fantasy about power: how it’s held and how it’s earned. These narratives frame their protagonists’ traditionalist paradigms as an existential conflict between themselves and the modern world. While other beloved shows like Stranger Things express their nostalgia by transporting us back in time, shows like Yellowstone and its ilk express their longing for a different age by constantly reinforcing their worldviews and refusing to allow much of an alternative. These aren’t shows that address systemic change because they don’t think systemically at all; they align with individualism at all costs. That their (white, male, boomer) protagonists may have benefited from the American system is, well, not really something worth investigating.

The appeal of that approach is clear. It only takes Stallone an episode and a half to begin complaining about his confusion over modern culture gone awry. “What the fuck is with the pronouns?” he chortles; he’s not entirely outraged, just condescendingly bemused at the rest of us, who haven’t yet figured out that foibles masquerading as societal rules don’t actually matter.

It’s too easy to label the appeal of these shows as simply that they’re “not woke,” however — their lure is something more primal. The Yellowstone model bespeaks a kind of return to 19th-century manifest destiny, but without any illusions that the American dream is about equal opportunity and egalitarianism. No, in these shows, it’s purely and simply about greed, fortune, and power. That may not hold much sway with millennials or Gen Z, but these shows’ ability to attract the older generations is undeniable. Why watch yet another diverse, polite, and bland Netflix ensemble when you could watch Kevin Costner punch his own son in the face and then blame his kid for getting punched? The brazenness, the lack of apology, and the braggadocio of it all are part of the fantasy. These aren’t the Roys of Succession’s upper-crust New York, coasting on faint veneers of respectability; these are the Duttons of Montana, by way of rugged prairie crossings and bloodshed, the one and only Manfredi of Oklahoma, by way of New York City and prison. They never needed your approval.

They already have something better: your undivided attention.