January 17, 2005

On Tilt

I watched the premiere episode of ESPN's new show, Tilt, Thursday night and it was predictably disappointing. In fact, I said here Wednesday that I was really looking forward to the show and that "I just hope ESPN can resist the urge to sensationalize every single bit of their topic for once." Well, sensationalize every single bit of their topic is pretty much exactly what they did. Everything about the show was incredibly over-the-top, from the acting and the plot to the dialogue and the poker scenes. I couldn't tell for sure if I was supposed to be taking what I was seeing completely seriously or not, which isn't exactly a good sign for a supposed drama.

In particular, the constant use of poker lingo in every situation seemed very forced, like the writers wrote out all of the dialogue, turned in a finished script, and someone said, "We need to add 100 more poker-related words and phrases immediately!" The show's writers, Brian Koppelman and David Levien, also wrote Rounders, so they are very capable of writing a great script and great dialogue centering around poker. The first episode of Tilt seemed strangely like what someone who had only a passing knowledge of poker would have written.

The overall theme of the show is almost identical to ESPN's previous attempt at sports drama, Playmakers, which focused on every negative thing that people associate with the world of football. In Tilt, that meant a lot of stuff involving cheating at the tables, people getting threatened and hurt, and the casino doing horrible things to support the cheating. The first show also had strangely stereotypical stuff like a poker game with a bunch of African-American guys taking place in the back of a strip club, with two guys pulling guns on each other to settle a dispute at the table. That scene was the epitome of the first episode to me, in that it could have just as easily been part of a Saturday Night Live sketch or a National Lampoon's style movie.

I enjoyed the Daniel Negreanu, T.J. Cloutier, and Norman Chad cameos, although they didn't bother to give Cloutier any actual lines. I read over at Negreanu's blog that he had no idea the show would focus so much on making the poker world look dark and dangerous, so I imagine they might have some trouble getting cameos and support from poker players in the future (unless the show gets canceled before they need it, of course).

If the rest of the series is like the first episode, ESPN has done exactly what I expected them to do, which is take an interesting and popular topic and turn it into nothing more than an exaggerated soap opera based on things that only vaguely resemble reality. And there was no need to do it -- people are fascinated enough with the real poker world at this point that there's no reason to invent a shady underworld.

The History Channel had a show on the other night about the history of poker and it included a few segments showing the "Big Game" at the Bellagio, which features the very best cash-game players in the world playing for the biggest stakes in the world. It was incredibly tame and essentially the opposite of everything seen in the first episode of Tilt, but it was also infinitely more interesting and compelling. That is basically the problem with ESPN's new show.

Oh, and I found it hilarious that just days after seemingly every ESPN employee who could get on camera found a way to bash Randy Moss for pretending to moon fans in Green Bay, the channel's big new show featured Michael Madsen's character receiving oral sex from a woman in a hotel bathroom literally minutes into the premiere episode. The show also had that ridiculous scene with players pulling guns on each other in the back of a strip club and the preview of this week's episode had a semi-nude woman giving a guy a lap dance while saying, "I've been wanting to show these to someone all day." Once again, I have absolutely no problem with any of these things, but the amount of hypocrisy involved is astounding.

Coming up on SportsCenter tonight, our 42 NFL experts tell you why Randy Moss is a horrible human being for pretending to show people his butt. And don't forget to check out the second episode of Tilt Thursday night. For those of you who missed Don "The Matador" Everest smiling into the camera while it was implied that he was receiving oral sex from a woman in a bathroom in the first episode, you can catch a replay tonight at seven!

Today at The Hardball Times:

- The Hardball Times 2005 NCAA Pre-Season All-America Team (by Craig Burley)

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