Everybody is gunning for the gambling legend known as “The Matador” in ESPN’s slow moving and tension-free poker series “Tilt.” Populated by scheming card sharks, a shifty casino manager and a bitter cop, “Tilt” is awash in unlikable characters and a plot that’s tough to decipher. Poker, its popularity skyrocketing due to televised tournaments, is a backdrop for malicious behavior here, but the vicarious thrill a viewer gets from the call of “all in” is desperately missing from “Tilt’s” pilot. And besides, shouldn’t a show called “Tilt” really be about pinball?
Executive producers Brian Koppelman and David Levien were the scribes behind the poker underworld pic “Rounders” and their fascination with the game’s seedy side extends into “Tilt,” which is set up as a serial and demands a weekly commitment, but captures none of the sexiness or visceral appeal of Vegas.
“Tilt” quickly tilts into the absurd: A 12-year-old girl gambles with hoods in a hotel room; two of the protagonists try to build a bankroll by playing in an underground game where players pull guns on each other; and our former champ suddenly moonlights as an enforcer. One wonders where will it stop and when the motives of the characters will finally be revealed.
It has been 10 years since the Matador, aka Don Everest (Michael Madsen), was champ, but this snarky legend has a giant bull’s-eye on the back of his leather jacket. He has some sort of relationship with Bart Rogers (Don McManus), who runs the Colorado Casino that Everest plays in, and the players who join him at the table generally assign him uncommon respect .
Clark Marcellin(Todd Williams) and Eddie Towne (Eddie Cibrian), meanwhile, are conspiring to strike it big at the Matador’s expense, though exactly what they’re plotting is never quite spelled out. They stage a fight, which one would think would get them banned from a casino, , and despite the two of them being suspicious of everyone, they blindly take one guy at his word that he can get them bankrolled. They’re in cahoots with the one character with any appeal, a woman who goes by the name Miami (Kristin Lehman), whose high-stakes card playing began as a pre-teen.
Separately, a sheriff, Lee Nickel (Chris Bauer), has come to town to avenge his brother’s substantial losses. He swears there’s cheating going on, especially by the Matador, though no one is listening. Frustrated, one assumes the lawman will go to drastic measures to bring down the Colorado and its prized player.
Besides Lehman, acting is stiff and flat, providing no energy to the soap opera pace and story development. Pilot splays its character development too wide to provide a sense of where the series is going or even where viewers should focus. Worst of all, the show provides almost no insight into how poker is played by the big money guys. Sure, there’s a glimpse of how to cheat, but if the fix isn’t in, “Tilt” folds before the flop.