Mr. Coogan's So-Called Television Column

Urciuolo and Coogan look at ESPN’s Tilt. And we manage to work in references to Showgirls, Jenna Jameson and Maury, the wig store owner from Goodfellas“¦We rule.

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With a brand new type of show debuting on a network not really known for its original scripted programming, I thought this would be a good time to abandon a conventional television review and go for something completely different”¦

You should know the great Mark Uriciuolo from Inside Pulse Sports as he does a great job every week with his Musings and the Sports Weekly Pulse. Not only does Mark play more poker than any man I know, he’s also the only person I know that’s sat and played at a table with someone who placed at a World Poker Tour event. He didn’t earn enough money to pay the mortgage for the month that night, but it helped him become more of a poker fiend and quite qualified to break down ESPN’s new original show, Tilt.

Set in a Las Vegas casino (but filmed in a warehouse in Toronto), the show is about high stakes poker playing, some of it legitimate and honest, some of it not even the same ZIP code as either adjective. How does it stack up? (Get the pun?) Let’s get right to it”¦

Coogan: I looked at this show and no idea what to expect. All I remember was that stupid commercial with Michael Madsen holding up his pocket Kings like an asshole and Marcellin (Todd Williams III) jumping over the poker table in the middle of a hand. Based on the previews, what did you think the show was going to be about?

Urciuolo: I thought the show was going to be about three kids who were bankrolled by an older guy that were trying to set up a professional poker player. Turns out that’s part of the show. There’s also the back story of how each of those kids got involved, why the old man is bankrolling them, the sheriff who has come to town to clean things up and the casino director named “Lowball.” And of course, everything ties back to the Matador.

Coogan: I’m not sure if I would ever want the nickname, “Lowball.” You might as well just call me “hog.”

What have you thought of the show so far through the first few episodes? I’ve actually been fairly impressed with the execution to this point. They set up some interesting storylines that can play themselves out over the life of a series, which I think is mucho important when developing a series.

Urciuolo: It’s not nearly as bad as I thought it would be. There were some cheesy scenes, like when we could see the cards the British guy held in that game and his reaction to having lost with his trip 6’s to Eddie’s straight on the river. The idea of a 12-year-old taking $7k off a gangster and not getting killed is also pretty far fetched. But if you’re willing to set aside disbelief for a little while, the back story of the sheriff trying to avenge his cheating brother and the already lingering question as to whether Eddie is actually part of the team or whether he’s just using them to build his own stack and go pro on his own are both pretty interesting.

Coogan: Wait”¦are you suggesting the gaming industry hasn’t always been on the straight and narrow? That corruption used to be a common thing in Las Vegas? I assumed what I saw on Casino was made up”¦

While we’re on the point of believability, even though you’re not necessarily a frequent player at the casino poker games you know enough. Do you think cheating is this rampant in Vegas casinos? After all, it is one of the central themes of the show.

Urciuolo: No possible way. If you’ve ever been to a casino you know that there are cameras covering every single inch of the place. There are security experts who have nothing else to do at their job than think of ways that players can cheat and then watch players to see if they exhibit any behavior that would be consistent with cheating. Maybe a cheater gets away with it once before enough tape is reviewed to catch him, but the next time he walks into the casino and tries it he’s going to get busted.

Coogan: You’ve got a good point there. Revenge is always an intriguing storyline in the realm of storytelling as the conflict is already built in. But in this case, it just seems like these people could use their time a little more wisely”¦

Urciuolo: Well, no one said casino owners are honest. I mean, we’re talking about an industry built by Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky that is based on mathematic principles that say you are going to lose every game you play over the long haul. It’s not out of the realm of possibility, especially with the news that Trump is actually losing money on the Taj, that a casino boss might pull something to up his own take. After all, if you control security, you lessen greatly the chances of getting caught. Besides, it’s a great excuse to name a character after a malady in which your testicles descend too far.

Coogan: Wait”¦are you suggesting the gaming industry hasn’t always been on the straight and narrow? That corruption used to be a common thing in Las Vegas? I assumed what I saw with DeNiro and Pesci in Casino was made up”¦

What do you think of Eddie Towne (Eddie Cibrian, Third Watch), Clark Marcellin (Todd Williams III, also from Third Watch) and Miami (Kristin Lehman, Judging Amy) as the young, aggressive card shark characters all looking to get back at the Matador?

Urciuolo: As a casual card player I do find it ridiculous. I play a lot of poker online (for fake money, not even real) and the one thing I learned almost immediately was that you have to let it go. If a guy traps you, takes a pot, makes a bad call and sucks out on the river or anything like that then so be it. That’s why it’s called gambling. If you try to go back after that guy odds are you end up losing all your chips along the way because you’re not thinking about playing the whole game. Just a part of it. Add to that the fact that they must either know, or at least suspect, that he’s working with some advantage as well and even in character they should realize going after this guy is suicide. But, I guess if they weren’t going after him there wouldn’t be much of a show, huh?

Coogan: You’ve got a good point there. Revenge is always an intriguing storyline in the realm of storytelling as the conflict is already built in. But in this case, it just seems like these people could use their time a little more wisely”¦

Speaking of the Matador, let’s get to this next: Is Madsen the perfect guy to play the villainish card shark, or what?

Urciuolo: Madsen is great. He actually reminds of Worm from Rounders. I think “The Matador” is what Worm would have become. I can see Worm fleeing Binghamton after that beating from the cops and heading out West. He makes some money player poker, gets some ins, lands in with the casino manager who knows he’s a cheat, works out a deal and ends up under the protection of the Colorado Casino and works his game while the Casino gets a cut. It’s really a great role for Madsen, who’s made his career playing badass, intimidating characters that you just start to dislike immediately. He was the good guy in Species and you were still rooting for the Alien.

Coogan: Worm from Rounders. Wow. I never thought of that. And considering the same guys who wrote Rounders (Brian Koppelman and David Levien) wrote and directed the Tilt pilot, maybe they had Worm in mind. The only problem I see with your theory is that Worm was VERY high strung in Rounders and it would seem strange to me that he mellowed out THAT much over the years as he took up residence in Vegas.

You have a good point about Madsen though. The producers getting him was definitely a coup considering the high profile work he has done in the past, especially with Tarantino in his movies. As far-fetched as the some of the built in storylines are, Madsen seems to rise above it and play the kind of bad guy that’s worth rooting against”¦Even after the first two episodes, I can already say that it will be nice to see him lose a big hand or two or maybe even a big tournament.

Urciuolo: You’re right, Worm was pretty high strung. Maybe years of drinking mellowed him out. But Madsen was a coup. They needed a name, or at least a recognizable face, to sell the show. Getting more than a Daniel Negreneau or a TJ Cloutier to walk through the occasional scene is going to be tough. And with Madsen, you can see the Tarantino element, especially from Reservoir Dogs, come out in his character as the show progresses.

Coogan: I dig that. Only the true poker show addicts are going to get many of those jokes regarding the regular poker players showing up on screen.

I think the revenge theme works as a central theme to this show. It automatically provides a sense of intrigue and since Madsen does such a good job of making me hate him right away, I definitely want him to get his ass beaten at some point soon. Do you think “revenge” works as the central theme to this show?

Urciuolo: It works better for the Sheriff, Lee Nickel, than for anyone else. Nickel is apparently a pretty good card player. In the first episode he had quadrupled his money and more before getting skunked by the Matador. But his brother is actually dead and he has evidence that the Matador is the reason and actually a cheater, not some great card player. It certainly works better than the motive for Miami or Seymour, which by the way are both porn star names, making me think that perhaps certain ESPN Page 2 writers may have been involved in the creation of this show. They’ve begun to flesh out that the Matador won/stole all of the bail money Miami had won for her father and then when Seymour found out about it Matador had him beaten to a pulp. But unlike Nickel, they’re just looking to take money from him. Nickel is going to arrest him or kill him. That just works better in a revenge theme.

Coogan: Another good point”¦Avenging your brothe’s death likely related to his compulsive gambling is much more of a motivating factor for revenge than a trio of former porn stars who didn’t bother to get rid of their stage names losing a poker game they probably shouldn’t have been involved with to begin with.

Where do you think the show goes from here?

Urciuolo: Tough to say. I like that they already killed a main character. Dropping Seymour in the 3rd episode was unexpected and it forces the show to go another direction. They may kill another one. Most likely Lee Nickel. It seems unlikely that Nickel and Everest can coexist. In the larger context, they’re probably moving toward a final table at the “World Poker Championship” that involves Miami, Clark, Eddie, the Matador and whatever professional players they can get to do cameos. Miami, Clark and Eddie work together and one of them ends up with a huge chip stack against the Matador and we’ll see what happens.

Coogan: I see your point about Lee Nickel as he would be a prime candidate to get whacked, Goodfellas style. He’s as annoying as Maury the wig store owner was but as intense as Tommy was too. Since he’s a Midwestern law enforcement officer and not a made mafia guy from Brooklyn, that could pose a huge problem. However, the secondary storyline that he’s primarily involved with is certainly intriguing and bumping him off could be more a liability than interesting development. Then again, I think that story walks a tight rope. It’s interesting now, but could very easily turn into something so annoying that killing off the character would be the best thing possible. Let’s hope it doesn’t get to that.

As for the young pups and the Matador, it seems destined that at least one or two of them will end up at the “World Poker Championship” final table with the Matador with some sort of crazy ending. But I have to wonder aloud if that will happen this season or if it’s part of a storyline that will unfold over a couple of seasons. It would seem to make sense that the big tournament will take place before this first season is done, but then you have to wonder if it will be the central story EVERY season. That could get old too.

Urciuolo: What you’ve brought up is a very puzzling question for the show in my opinion. How long can you run with the same storyline? They can only flesh out so much before a tournament like the “World Poker Championship” pits several of the characters or more against Don Everest. There’s going to have to be some sort of climax for one or more of the storylines. But if the Matador loses, what happens? Does he suddenly swear revenge against the kids? Doubtful. If he wins then what happens? Do they decide to beat him with sticks instead of playing cards? Also unlikely. Maybe they set his daughter up working at the Cheetah only to have Kyle McLaughlin recruit her to work at another hotel and get her into coke, eventually setting up the rape of her best friend and another elaborate revenge scheme.

Coogan: Well, Jenna Jameson is from Las Vegas. Maybe they can recruit her to “come home,” get the Matador off in a multitude of ways, and then steal his money and his poker secrets? Either that or get him to sign a contract that will force him to work the goons running the Golden Nugget only to have Mark Burnett create another dopey casino related reality show about his “new life.”

Maybe?

Bull: I’ll tell you this. If they move the show past 10 p.m. and get Jenna Jameson to guest star, they’ll up the ratings. In fact, perhaps Burnett could call the show “who wants to sleep with a professional poker player, steal his secrets and bring down a casino empire.”

Coogan: Sounds like a pretty damn good show to me”¦

Now here are the $64,000 questions. Have you been drawn in enough so that you will continue to watch Tilt. Is it worth your time? And considering it’s an ESPN show, how does it compare (from an entertainment perspective anyway) to the football drama, Playmakers?

Urciuolo: I actually like this a bit better than Playmakers so far. It only took 2 episodes for me to start hating how much Leon whined and actually root for DH to keep his job. The idea of small town Nickel on his crusade against “dirty Vegas” is a little cliché, but there is something that sucks us in about one guy facing impossible odds. It’s a little like Leisure Suit Larry in the land of the Lounge Lizards. Just a guy in a seedy place trying to get his. Only this time his is revenge, not getting laid. And of course, with nothing else on at 9pm on Thursdays that grabs my interest, I might as well watch Tilt.

Coogan: I’m usually either writing my Friday column, drinking heavily or watching Smackdown on Thursday nights. HA! Well, 2 out of 3 ain’t bad anyway. So, while I’ll follow the events of the show and likely watch the multiple 3 a.m. showings that will be available, it’s tough to say that I’ll keep myself REALLY into it. It’s an interesting, unique premise that has started off reasonably well with the exception of the lack of believability in several instances, but it didn’t blow me away the way ABC’s Sunday night lineup (post 9 p.m.) does every week. One of, if not the main selling point(s) is that it’s an ESPN original drama instead of something FX or USA were doing. Without that unique spin to it, it would probably be just another show”¦Hell, remember when FX did Lucky with John Corbett and canned it after just one season? I could see Tilt suffering the same fate if it wasn’t for where it was being aired.

As for Playmakers, you have another valuable point”¦I didn’t think I’d see MORE whining in a professional football locker room than I did in a major casino where dopes lose their life savings all the time and weep like small children about it. For that reason: Advantage: Tilt.

Advantage: Coogan and Urciuolo.

Have a good week.

— Coogan

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