The DVD set of Tilt‘s freshman season includes first-rate extras that serve the program well. But even with the outtakes, deleted scenes, and a 20-minute featurette that includes all cast members, set tours, cast auditions, an alternate final episode ending, as well as a half-hour segment from the 1998 World Series of Poker, the series itself remains utterly unremarkable.
Set in the world of professional poker, Tilt centers on three apparently brilliant players who return to Vegas’ Colorado Casino to take on super-player and former world champ Don “The Matador” Everest (Michael Madsen). He has cheated each in the past. Eddie (Eddie Cibrian), Miami (Kristin Lehman), and Clark (Todd Williams) are summoned by Seymour Annisman (Kenneth Welsh), a guy with his own reasons for wanting to take down the Matador. The threesome arranges to play lots of poker to raise the amount necessary to challenge Matador to a game, planning to employ an array of cheating techniques—hand jives, winks—to get back what they lost, and perhaps grab a bit that elusive winner’s glow. It turns out (shock!) that the Matador’s not so easy to dupe. Additionally, he’s got problems too, particularly Lee Nickel (Chris Bauer), a crazed cop who believes the Matador killed his brother.
If only the writers had decided on the most important of these angles and played it to the end, instead of tossing in so many characters, so many backstories, so much to draw and arc and resolve. It’s not that the plot is overly complex; it just takes too long to get moving and then veers off in odd directions, like Clark taking a job as a broker, or Robert Forster appearing as Eddie’s dad, only to disappear in the next episode. Even the three players’ objective misses the mark: you’d think the game to take down the Matador would be the big climax, right? Well, it happens somewhere around the middle of the season, takes all of three minutes, and our “heroes” wind up back at square one.
Aside from this lame pay-off (the Matador knows they’re cheating after about a minute—so much for their skills), what made these kids think it was going to be easy to beat a guy who can “see into [people’s] souls”? Still, they try again, and they keep losing. Until the end, of course, when hotshot Eddie battles the Matador at the final table of the World Series of Poker (complete with ESPN commentators and neon signs for Bud Light and Toyota all over the place).
By this time, you’re so confused as to whom you’re supposed to be rooting for that the outcome doesn’t matter. The game gets lost. Poker games usually occur at the end of episodes and rarely continue for more than one or two scenes. Any poker-watcher knows that it’s the silences in front of the felt, the subtleties of play, that make the game exciting. Tilt fills its game scenes with stupid commentary from the Matador and lame retorts from bad players. These are supposed to make the challengers seem like experts, but you’d think the writers would want to have them exhibit real playing skills if the point of the show is that they’re Masters of the game preparing to battle the Grand Royale Master.
Creators Brian Koppelman and David Levien (also the writers of 1998’s Rounders) offer little explanation of their thinking in the Episode One commentary. They’re more interested in pointing out references to Scorsese flicks and Rocky movies (by the way guys, Rocky smacked Creed in II, not III). At one point, just as one is about to explain the reason for slow reveals and complex plot twists, the other guy stops him with a shout: “Top Gun reference!” and, again, discussion about Tilt falls by the wayside.
When he does talk about the show, Koppelman offers this:
As poker has become really popular… we can’t help but remember that this is a back room game originally and its roots are in roadside gamblers who would go from town to town and try to survive on their wits and had to learn to defend themselves against cheaters and against being robbed and against crooked police. Legends of the game who are now playing in this clean environment have come from a place that was the opposite of that and we thought it would be really interesting to set up a fictional context where those worlds were in opposition and where the old school way with cheating and angle-shooting came up against this new school, where these guys are like athletes going from tournament to tournament to try to win glory.
This would have been excellent. But Tilt gives one the sense that casinos are rigged, cheating is rampant, and there’s little point even trying to become skillful in a game so hopelessly corrupt.
Perhaps it’s a fallacy, but the idea that champions like T.J. Cloutier and Hoyt Corkins rose through the ranks in similar style to the Matador and his cronies doesn’t fill this poker-TV fan with too much glee. The players in Tilt have so little respect for poker that the honor of the game is buried amid shaky deals and legs getting snapped.