Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Poker Fictions: Comedy vs. Drama

Poker Fictions: Comedy Vs. DramaYou might’ve heard some recent news about a new poker show reportedly in the works -- not another game show, but something a little different.

Apparently the creators of the well-regarded Showtime series “Weeds” are planning a new poker-themed comedy called “Whales.” The half-hour show “revolves around a group of brilliant and quirky young people, some of them Harvard and MIT graduates, who move to Las Vegas to live in a lavish apartment while pursuing the $10 million prize at the World Series of Poker.” That’s about all the report on the new show gives us, aside from some more background on the show’s producers, at least one of whom is described as “an avid poker player.”

Initial response in the poker community to the show seems positive, I’m guessing mostly because “Weeds” has proven a winner among many in that crowd. I’ve seen a few episodes of “Weeds,” a show with a novel premise involving a middle-class woman who upon the death of her husband ends up selling marijuana in order to support herself and two kids.

Now that I think about it, I am recalling some references to poker in the few episodes I watched of that show, too. Seemed like there might have been an older character on there who played online poker, but I might be thinking of some other series. (Like I say, I’ve only seen “Weeds” a few times, and it has been a while since I did.)

While the producers’ resumes might be the main reason why poker people are reacting positively to “Whales,” I’m wondering if some aren’t simply glad to see an attempt made at a poker-themed comedy as opposed to yet another drama.

Since the poker “boom” in 2003, there have been a string of films and TV shows revolving around poker. Nearly all have been primarily dramas. And almost none have been well-received, either in the poker community or by the public at large.

That original series on ESPN, “Tilt,” from 2005 comes to mind, the one starring Michael Madsen as a player nicknamed “The Matador.” That one got a lot of attention at the time, and while some liked it, most reviews were lukewarm at best. Then came those films -- All In (2006), Lucky You (2007), Deal (2008) -- which like “Tilt” tried to shoehorn a dramatic story into the world of high-stakes tournament poker, and in all cases were coolly received by audiences, both by poker people and everyone else.

'The Grand' (2007)The only recent poker-themed film that seems to have escaped universal derision was the often wildly funny mockumentary The Grand (2007). Of course, one might argue that film’s success largely stems from the improvisational talents of the cast rather than the construction of a compelling (wholly fictional) narrative. (When I say “poker-themed film” I’m not referring to movies that include poker scenes -- be they integral or incidental -- but rather films in which poker is of primary significance. In other words, films which all would agree are about poker.)

As a fiction writer, I’ve purposely avoided trying to write poker-themed stories thus far. One reason is that I write so darned much about poker otherwise. Also, I think I’m a little intimidated by the prospect of trying to build a fiction around poker. How could I possibly say something new or fresh that hasn’t already been communicated thousands of times already in real-life poker games?

Hearing about “Whales,” though, has me wondering if perhaps those taking a comedic approach to their poker-themed storytelling might enjoy a slight advantage over those who try to create poker-themed dramas.

Whereas the dramatic writer is having to deal with the fact that so many possible plots and characters already exist in the real world of poker, the comedic writer doesn’t necessarily have to compete with reality so directly. Furthermore, the comedic writer probably also enjoys a greater license to exaggerate or even misrepresent reality than does the dramatic writer.

Think about how many criticisms levied against those dramatic films by poker players revolve around identifying inaccuracies in the way the game is represented. But if the main goal was more obviously to produce grins, I think the storytellers would be allowed a little more leeway in this regard, generally speaking.

Poker -- a game based on producing conflicts and resolving them -- is inherently dramatic. It is also a game full of absurdities and ironies, of people behaving oddly, of situations so outrageous one instinctively responds with laughter.

Stands to reason, then, that poker-themed fictions can go in either direction. Or both at once. Such is poker, I guess. Equally capable of making us laugh or cry.

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