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Tilting at ESPN

As the old saying goes, there are three things the average person believes he or she does better than anyone else: drive a car, perform sexually, and play poker.

Well, I guess I’m not an average person. Because I only do two of those three things better than anyone else.

I’m not much of a card player, I’m afraid. Oh, I have my streaks, but I’m in no danger of joining Phil Hellmuth and Phil Ivey to form a holy trinity of poker-dominating Phils any time soon. My problem is that I do too much of what the pros call “chasing” — hanging around with a marginally good hand on the off-chance that the next card dealt is going to give me some sort of unbeatable combination, even when the odds of such an event happening are gently whispering “no.”

The sad thing is, this little foible is not merely restricted to my poker playing — hoping that something better will come along when bitter experience suggests that it will not is also clearly influencing the poker-themed programming I watch. How else to explain the fact that I watched a full season of ESPN’s lackluster original series Tilt?

It’s not that Tilt is bad, necessarily. It’s just that it promises to be a whole lot better, only to fall ridiculously short of delivering. At any given point during a typical episode of Tilt, the dialogue started crackling, the storyline began to come together, and I started thinking that maybe we finally had a winner on our hands. And then, almost immediately — sometimes by the very next scene — Tilt spun wildly off the rails, undone by its latest round of narrative improbabilities. I can’t think of another show that seemed more likely to set a new standard for what an original scripted series can deliver, only to serve as a bitter reminder that basic cable remains, by and large, amateur hour, that for every Nip/Tuck and Monk, there’s a dozen shows like Cover Me and Bull bringing down the average.

Don’t remember Cover Me and Bull? You shouldn’t. And in a couple of months, you won’t remember Tilt either.

If you’re wondering what exactly a scripted show is doing on an all-sports network, you clearly aren’t familiar with ESPN’s stated goal of broadening its broadcast mission. Not content with drawing interest from the vast majority of the male population that simply can’t live a full and complete life until it knows the score of the Blazers-Cavs game, the Wolrdwide Leader in Sports aspires to offer a more complete slate of programming. So far, this strategy has led to shows in which sportswriters scream at one another, made-for-TV movies featuring character actors like Brian Dennehy and Tom Sizemore wearing horrible fright wigs, and scripted fare like the late, unlamented Playmakers. That was ESPN’s dramatic take on professional football in which a fictional football franchise had to contend with every conceivable hot-button issue of the day, including but not limited to: painkiller addiction, domestic abuse, closeted professional athletes, recreational drug addiction and gang violence. Playmakers was canceled after NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue began wondering aloud whether his league would be better served by moving its games to a network without a series suggesting that football players are drugged-up, oversexed wife-beaters, thus depriving us of a second season where the team members experimented with polygamy, formed a terror cell, fixed the Super Bowl and murdered an opposing linebacker on the field with the help of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle.

There’s no poker commissioner, so it’s unclear if Tilt will suffer the same fate, now that it’s wrapped up its first season and will soon air alongside World Series of Poker reruns on ESPN2 until the earth is a burnt-out cinder. But whatever Tilt’s ultimate fate — cult hit, long-running drama, answer to a bar trivia question about creative failures — it’s clear after one season that the show should have been much better than it actually was.

Tilt was created by David Levien and Brian Koppleman, who have previously collaborated to write the script for Rounders, which should be known as the best poker movie not called The Cincinnati Kid. (After much deliberation, the judges disqualified The Sting, which is really more of a movie about con men than it is about poker.) So you’ve got two solid writers returning to a subject they’ve absolutely nailed in the recent past — it’s not unlike asking Scorsese to do a weekly series about mobsters. (Look for “That’s My Capo!” this fall as part of ABC’s TGIF block of programming.)

This time around, Levien and Koppleman served up a classic narrative — three card players looking for vengeance against the legendary poker player what done them wrong. And they didn’t dig up just anyone for the villainous poker player role — they cast Michael Madsen, who has carved out a nice career for himself playing thugs, lowlifes, scumbags and, inexplicably, a kind-hearted mechanic in Free Willy. I mean, if I were to say to you that the character of Don “The Matador” Everest spends most of his time during Tilt’s first season cheating people at cards, breaking a guy’s leg during a stairway beatdown and participating in widespread institutional fraud with shady casino executives, who would you wind up casting? Exactly.

So — gifted producers, promising story, red-hot subject matter, and a character that indulges in every act of degradation save for cutting off a guy’s ear while dancing around to old Stealers Wheel tunes. What could possibly go wrong?

Quite a bit as it turns out. Because what might work well in a two-hour movie doesn’t play quite as smoothly across eight weekly installments.

Or to put it another way, there’s just too much happening at any given point in Tilt. Besides the central revenge plot, this inaugural season has featured a secondary revenge plot in which a midwestern sheriff looks to avenge his brother’s death at the hands of Don Everest, a power struggle between Everest and the head of gambling operations at the fictional casino where the show takes place, a drug-money laundering scheme, an FBI sting, a confrontation between the hero and his estranged father, a romance between the heroine and a casino impresario, and more shady Vegas dealings than I can keep track off. For brevity’s sake, I will not dwell upon the attempted murder, multiple beatdowns and three on-camera slayings, including one scene where the corrupt police chief shoots a would-be witness in the chest. In broad daylight. In the middle of his office.

Yeah, that’s the trouble with Las Vegas — there’s just no good place in that city for a law enforcement official to murder someone in cold blood. I mean, it’s not like the town is surrounded on all four sides by a barren desert.

(Sidenote: I can’t believe someone affiliated with the city of Las Vegas hasn’t pulled a Tagliabue and squawked to ESPN about Tilt’s central thesis, which seems to be: “If the card sharps don’t get you in this town, someone else will — casino executives, police, elected officials. We’re all on the take, and if you’re lucky, we’ll just rough you up and take your wallet.” Surely, Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman should be demanding equal time for some sort of “Visit Las Vegas: Odds Are Good You Won’t Be Killed Within the City Limits” or “Vegas: Not Complicit in Your Ruin Since 1982!” PSA. Also, I think it’s brave that ESPN would air a show that suggests amateur poker players — which, let’s face it, is 99 percent of Tilt’s likely audience — are fat, clueless slugs ripe for a justly deserved-fleecing.)

The problem with this kitchen sink approach to storytelling — where one improbable development follows another, often in consecutive scenes — is that it all becomes overwhelming. How can you be taken surprise by something you didn’t see coming when you’re too exhausted to look? The plot twists that should come across as shocking merely feel exasperating, like the scene in the penultimate episode of Tilt where Everest dashes off to Lake Tahoe — in the middle of a championship poker tournament, mind you — to whack a loyal henchman who has outlived his usefulness. And instead of being struck by the character’s bloodlessness and viciousness, you’re left thinking, “Man, doesn’t he have enough on his plate right now?”

Madsen does the best he can with this material, playing up Everest’s amorality with his usual relish. But the character is so unrelentingly vile, it isn’t long before Madsen’s performance is consigned to the realm of cartoon super-villainy. Where’s the football player with that Bradley Fighting Vehicle when you need him?

Madsen gets little to no help from the other lead actors. Eddie Cibrian, as would-be hold ‘em virtuoso Eddie Towne is pleasant enough to look at, I suppose, but he’s something of a non-entity — unfortunate, since most of the action appears to center around him. Kristin Lehman, playing the requisite tough chick role that comes standard in any gambling-themed entertainment, is even more of a human blank. Todd Williams completes the trio of players pitted against Madsen and turns in the finest work; unfortunately between the poker and money-laundering plotlines and whatever other nonsense the writers shovel his way, Williams gets lost in the shuffle.

As it turns out, the best acting work in Tilt happens on the periphery, courtesy of the hangers-on and hired goons who flit in and out of the background. Particularly impressive is the performance turned in by Don McManus as the aforementioned director of gambling operations. He plays a guy up to his eyeballs in dirty deals and corruption, knows that a day of reckoning is at hand, and still can’t do anything to extricate himself completely from the mire where he’s most comfortable. It as close to a tragic figure as Tilt has and McManus acts the hell out of the part. The entire show changes when McManus is on the screen, thanks in no small part to the brio with which he delivers even the slightest of lines. Given Tilt’s pattern of starting out with a promising draw only to leave you with a handful of nothing, do I have to tell you that as the season wore on, McManus seemed to get less and less screen time? I believe I do not.

(Which may or may not be just as well. One of McManus’ last roles right before Tilt was a guest shot on an episode of the inexplicably popular CSI where he played the husband of a transgendered doctor and got to deliver, with righteous indignation, the following line: “I performed fellatio on my wife… Is that a crime?” Whatever happens to Don McManus from this day forward — whether he wins an Oscar or gets an honorary knighthood or cures cancer or ascends bodily into heaven thanks to his good and righteous life — whenever I see him on my TV, a righteously indignant voice in my head will say, “I performed fellatio on my wife… Is that a crime?” If it’s any consolation, I have the sophistication of a five year old.)

But despite the efforts of McManus and some of the other, more memorable tertiary characters or even some of the more striking pieces of dialogue (“Should I raise or fold?” “Never ask a barber if you need a haircut.”), Tilt ultimately never pays off. Between the innumerable plot threads, the stories that stop and start and spin off in crazy directions before petering out, and the increasingly improbable on-camera homicides, there’s too much going on. Every time that it looked like Tilt had finally found its footing, some ridiculous new twist would come along and knock everything sideways. I wish it didn’t turn out that way, but that’s what happened.

And that’s something ESPN needs to address, whether it’s for a second season of Tilt or amid any one of its other attempts for worldwide sports-themed programming domination. Whether it’s screaming sportswriters, character actors wearing comical hairpieces or fictional football players commanding heavy ordinance, the end result is always the same — there’s too much going on. Even SportsCenter, the once-great centerpiece of the ESPN universe, suffers from the same surplus of background noise. When you can’t get through a Braves-Brewers highlight without sound effects, background music and an steady stream of Stuart Scott-spewed patter, what hope can you have of putting together a scripted show that doesn’t induce headaches or grand mal seizures?

So ESPN, I’m begging you: if you can’t be dissuaded from your ill-advised plan to be all things to all couch potatoes — and if loud-mouthed know-it-all Stephen A. Smith can get his own show, then it doesn’t appear you can be — at least figure out a way to dial it down. Patiently explain to Tony Kornheiser and Mike Lupica that modern-day microphones pick up everything they say, eliminating the need to shout loud enough for every home in America to hear them. Have a heart-to-heart with the creative team on your made-for-TV movies so we’re not treated to the sight of Michael Clarke Duncan appearing in “Shaq-tastic!: The Shaquille O’Neal Story” sporting a pony-tail, a monocle, and an 1890s handlebar mustache. And above all, stress to the people who want to try their hands at developing dramatic series for your universe of cable networks that good storytelling doesn’t necessarily mean you have to subject the main characters — and by extension, the viewers — to the 10 plagues of Egypt before the first commercial break.

It’s a lesson any poker player could teach you — even a lousy one like myself: sometimes, when you think you have a hot hand, it’s best to keep your cards close to the vest.


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