|Tilt - The Complete First Season|
|DVD TV Shows|
|Written by Bryan Dailey|
|Tuesday, 14 June 2005|
Poker has exploded all over your TV so much that that ESPN might as well just spin off and start a new channel called The Poker Channel. Just last evening for an experiment I flipped through my satellite channels and ran across three different networks airing professional or celebrity poker of some form. With the resurgence of the popularity of poker, the Matt Damon/Edward Norton poker drama “Rounders” has found a new life on DVD. To capitalize on this social phenomenon, the executives at ESPN decided to take the creative team behind “Rounders,” Brian Koppelman and David Levien and put their poker-related drama series “TILT” on the air to fill the void between World Series of Poker 2003 and 2004 repeats.
Based in Las Vegas, “TILT” is the story of three up and coming hotshot poker players named Eddie Towne, Miami and Clark Marcellin. They have all been screwed over in one way or another by the local shark Don “the Matador” Everest (played by Michael Madsen, most recently of “Kill Bill Volume 2” fame). The young trio, with the help of their mentor, is trying to figure a way to take down the Matador. They don’t mean to do this by offing him and throwing him into a dumpster; he’s too powerful and has too many friends in high places for that. They need to beat him at his own game, which is tough, because the Matador doesn’t play poker unless the cards are stacked in his favor. Cheating at poker is easier than you might think, especially when you are friends with half of the players at the table. The Matador has gained a reputation as a dirty player, but anyone who ever crossed him isn’t around to tell about it.
The members of this young poker trio aren’t the only ones who have a bone to pick with the Matador. Small-town police officer Lee Nickel, played by character actor Chris Bauer, is in town trying to make his own run at taking out The Matador. It turns out that Nickel’s brother was one of the Matador’s cheating buddies who he tried to cross the Matador and, like so many before him, is now pushing up daisies. Where the others were screwed over for money and power, with Nickel this is much more personal and he’s willing to go to greater lengths to be sure that Everest pays for his sins one way or another.
The show weaves the two primary plot lines together, with the poker players and the sheriff simultaneously trying to get close to the Matador. This isn’t a Mafia show a la “The Sopranos,” but it gives off a little of that dark, gritty “don’t mess with me or I’ll take you out” feeling where you don’t know from show to show which characters are going to make it to the next episode and which ones are going to end up tossed over the rail and onto a bank of slot machines.
Some fun cameos happen in “TILT” as the biggest poker event of the year comes to Vegas and ESPN’s own poker-announcing duo, Lon McEachern and Norman Chad, make appearances as the announcers for this event. No Limit Hold ‘Em celebrity Phil Hellmuth Jr. also makes an appearance as himself. He has one of the biggest egos in poker and his temper tantrums are legendary to anyone who follows poker. Hellumuth hams it up pretty good for the cameras and really takes things over the top as they show some past showdowns between him and the Matador and previous championship events. It gives an air of authenticity to the Matador character and it’s fun to see a simulation of a real ESPN event set in a fictional drama. It seems as if the casting director is a Quentin Tarantino fan, because not only is Tarantino favorite Madsen a star of Tilt, but “Jackie Brown”’s Robert Forster makes a several episode cameo. Eddie Towne has a heated battle at a poker table with what we believe is a high-rolling out-of-town tourist, but we later learn that he is actually Jimmy Towne, Eddie’s father. The Matador makes a play to get Jimmy Towne on his team of cheats and the conflict portrayed by Forster is probably the best acting in the entire series.
The bonus footage on the disc, especially the virtual tour through the set, is my favorite part of this three-DVD set. The set designers have done an incredible job making it truly feel like the show is set in Las Vegas. Of course, to really film a show of this magnitude in a Vegas casino would require shutting it down for weeks if not months and the amount of money that ESPN could afford to rent the casino for a month probably wouldn’t cover a day’s worth of earnings that the casino makes, so a set was built up in Toronto, Canada. The fictional Colorado Casino, where the show primarily takes place, is in reality about a hundred times smaller than it appears. By clever camera positioning and changing things like the lights on the slots machines when shot from other angles, it seems as if the casino is endless, when it is actually set in a fairly average-sized soundstage. Aspiring cinematographers should pick this disc up just to learn the clever camera positioning tricks.
“TILT” was met by TV critics with mixed reviews. I can see how many people might not enjoy the show and get lost during the technical parts where they are discussing poker hands and strategy. Poker players wish there was more focus on this and casual fans of the game probably wish there were less poker. I don’t play often, but I know the game and terms well enough that the lingo doesn’t get in the way for me. Some of the acting is a little amateurish and the side plots bog the show down at times, but in the end, “TILT” Season 1 is a fun eight-episode foray into a world you might not have known anything about.