Early in the first episode of Tilt, ESPN's stylish new original drama series (Thursdays, 9 p.m.), a pit boss tells a wannabe high roller looking for a no-limit poker game, "It's all anybody wants to play now since they put it on TV." Strangely, the one place no one seems to be playing no-limit hold 'em is on Tilt. This is a good thing--if you want to see poker on the tube, it's not hard to find, and by not inundating the show with table action, Tilt avoids obvious poker-movie clichés. ("What? He was bluffing?!") Instead it focuses on a high-strung hood called the Matador, played by Michael Madsen in a role that fits him as comfortably as the beat-up leather jacket he wears everywhere. The Matador has the annoying habit of speaking only in poker platitudes ("A set of deuces is kind of like a mackerel in the moonlight.... ") and tough-guy talk ("Eight grand? If I run out of toilet paper at home, I wipe my a with eight grand"). But he's a preternaturally gifted player who's amassed cash, power and a substantial enemies list, which includes an Iowa cop and a hip trio of twentysomethings, a poker-playing Scooby gang with a mysterious score to settle. As they scour Vegas trying to put together a bankroll for their inevitable showdown with the Matador, you can't help but get drawn into their seamy little world. --M.B.