Poker in TV Crime dramas

WHEN is it appropriate to reference a high-stakes poker game in a TV series? When the stakes are high, of course. While there are certainly alternative effective methods to employ when trying to convey a serious sense of having it all on the line, none bring to the felt a more sexy and glamorous lifestyle inherent to the subject matter than poker. Frame by frame, draw by draw, and flop by flop, each part of a high stakes poker scene keeps the audience engaged in the goings-on and potentially up to speed with character interactions that are more complex than meets the eye in traditionally filmed dialogue scenes.
Here are some shows that have dedicated episodes to the lifestyle and common hardships of gambling with personal problems at stake, which use the above tactics in various ways to garner audience attention. How do they keep in step with the lifestyle and feel of a poker game? Let’s take a look.

Hustle: Old Acquaintance

This episode of Hustle has Stacie’s (Jaime Murray) estranged husband Jake (Max Beesley) making an appearance in the casino. It follows that he is to be the gang’s next mark. As the competition dwindles down, Jake beats the gang and walks out with Stacie in tow. As far as the poker and ensuing bets are concerned, if you have trouble figuring out how the hands are working here, PartyPoker offers a hand ranking that’s easy to follow. The episode leaves off with the gang having lost more in their bet than originally thought, it seems, as Stacie leaves with Jake… But does Stacie really dump the gang for love, or is there a further twist on the last deal?

CSI: Las Vegas: Revenge is Best Served Cold

In this episode of the widely acclaimed CSI, a poker player falls dead during a high stakes game. This episode creatively twists in a revenge plot for a cheating mistake at a WSOP event-like tournament. Funnily enough, one of the bigs makes an appearance in this episode, with Tom Schneider making a silent cameo as a dealer and also served as the technical director for the poker scenes. Using a playing card as a poker weapon was a draw for the episode, bringing in Chris ‘Jesus’ Ferguson’s card-throwing techniques to serve as the MO of the murderer.

Luck: Both Hands on the Wheel

Character Jerry (Jason Gedrick) has a lot to lose in this episode of the series Luck. Having yet to totally lose out on the felt, Jerry has a little money tucked away for this situation. Playing against recurring nemesis Leo (Dennis Dun) proves to be unwise in this go-round, as Leo has Jerry seemingly by the neck, leading him to fold with a winning hand and to play aggressively when he should have been on the defence, more or less. Jerry soon agrees to move this high-stakes game to a secluded room in Leo’s restaurant, which proves to be an unwell end for Jerry, even if dealer Naomi does have a bit of a thing for the self-destructive gambler. Luck in this episode raises the stakes in the rivalry between Jerry and Leo through the game of poker, and the show uses the game to build a down-and-out Jerry, whose expertise is constantly shown as better left to the horse track. But he has a dream, right?
Using the tenets of poker to deepen characters and thicken plot lines proves profitable for TV series, regardless of genre. Getting familiar with hand rankings and rules can be useful to ensure your understanding of the underlying themes made apparent by card hands, betting, and winning. Keep yourself poker-informed to catch the references and deeper meanings behind poker-related plot points.

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Kelly Adams, Robert Vaughn, Adrian Lester, Robert Glenister and Matt Di Angelo (pics: BBC)

Rating ★★★½

BBC1, Friday, 7 January, 9pm

With child murder and serial killers now a staple on many cop shows, it’s hard to begrudge the return of this light-hearted – as well as light-fingered – conman-caper series.

Like the grandaddy of con-man films, The Sting, this series from writer Tony Jordan relies on the wit and charm of its grifters, along with beautifully played-out cons that relieve the corrupt and nasty of their ill-gotten lucre.

Anna Chancellor, right, as crooked Wendy Stanton

While the cast still misses original member Marc Warren as Danny Blue (series one can be seen online at SeeSaw), the current players are a watchable bunch. For series seven there are no changes, so Adrian Lester returns as Mickey Stone, the gang’s leader, with Robert Glenister (‘fixer’ Ash Morgan), the ever-suave Robert Vaughn (‘roper’ Albert Stroller), Kelly Adams (Emma Kennedy) and Matt Di Angelo (Emma’s brother, Sean).

Anna Chancellor is the mark
The opening episode is the usual impossibly convoluted affair in which the scamsters pull off four intricate cons at the same time (Tony Jordan must have fun working out these plots).

But before an arrogant viscount, a shady judge and a bent MP get their comeuppance, Mickey and the gang decide to help the niece of their favourite barman, Eddie (Rob Jarvis), who’s been ripped off by the owner of a modelling agency.

Anna Chancellor plays the Cruella De Vil-like Wendy Stanton, who routinely fleeces young wannabe models. Can the gang get the tight-fisted Wendy, who twitches whenever large sums are mentioned, to invest a huge amount of cash in their bogus fashion line?

Robert Vaughn’s still having fun
With its cool jazzy music, slick locations and witty grifters, Hustle makes it seem plausible and fun. Like a pickpocket’s diversionary tactic, it’s all an illusion and can leave us feeling short-changed if we unpick the story.

The formula will need to move on if the new series is to avoid becoming routine and dull, and so we will be meeting Albert’s daughter from the US soon. But perhaps the ante could be upped for the characters if a little more danger and risk were introduced at the expense of all the larkiness.

But Hollywood legend Robert Vaughn (The Magnificent Seven,The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) and his co-stars seem to enjoy showing us the tricks of the trade. And for a shallow bit of old-fashioned entertainment, the series usually provides a few good laughs and is a cheerful break from watching corpses being sawn open on Silent Witness.

• Crime Zapper – DCI Banks, Garrow’s Law, Silent Witness •

• OK, I admit it. I wasn’t a fan of DCI Banks: Aftermath on ITV1. It didn’t do Peter Robinson’s book justice, and its lead player, Mr Everyman Stephen Tompkinson, was too manic and just plain wrong in the part. Banks is pretty hot with the ladies in the novel, whereas on screen Tompkinson was forever ranting and looking psychotic. He seems to be in the Robson Green-Martin Clunes knee-jerk favourite zone at ITV – every part that comes along, no matter how unsuitable, being put his way. The newspaper reviews were also lukewarm, many saying it was a bit too routine a procedural. The great British viewership, however, switched on to it. Banks got higher ratings (5.6m) on its opening night than Spooks, which is impressive bearing in mind the latter’s huge fanbase and eight-year headstart. And now Left Bank Pictures has announced that there will be three new further Banks adaptations in 2011 – Playing with Fire, Friend of the Devil and Cold as the Grave (six hour-long episodes, two per story). 

• The ludicrously brief series of Garrow’s Law – just four episodes – was short but compelling, and ended with a terrific finale on Sunday. Andrew Buchan wrung tears and snot in a highly charged story as Garrow faced ruin and disgrace along with the woman he loves, Lady Sarah (Lyndsey Marshal). Apart from the central drama and Garrow’s brilliant performances in the old Old Bailey, the series has reflected on the grotesque legal system of the late 18th century – with a 12-year-old boy being hung for theft in this episode. Alun Armstrong as Garrow’s solicitor and mentor, Southouse, gave a grandstanding speech at Garrow’s trial for Criminal Conversation (adultery to us), and Sir Arthur (made very loathsome by Rupert Graves) got his humiliating comeuppance. Anyone intrigued by these stories, based on the records of the Old Bailey, may be interested in knowing more about the real cases behind the series’ dramas from its legal consultant on historical matter, Mark Pallis, who has a blog. And the Beeb has a round-up of all the buzz created by Garrow’s Law here.

Emilia Fox in Silent Witness (BBC)

• In addition to Zen with Rufus Sewell coming along on BBC1 in the first week of January, a new series of Hustle and the 14th of Silent Witness are also lined up (though no dates and times have been announced yet). Silent Witness opens with a two part story called A Guilty Mind, in which three patients die unexpectedly in the same ward of a London hospital. Emilia Fox, who plays Dr Nikki Alexander, says, ‘The case affects Nikki deeply and personally and looks at the less tangible part of pathology, which is the mind. We are used to the team finding things out through the organs and the body, but of course when it comes to the mind it’s a lot harder to deal with.’ Previews will follow on crimetimepreview.

• The Beeb has also announced another new thriller series for 2011, Stolen starring Damian Lewis (Band of Brothers, The Forsyte Saga, Life). He plays Detective Inspector Anthony Carter, who’s trying to rescue some children from child slavery. It’s to be directed by Justin Chadwick, whose credits include The Other Boleyn Girl and Bleak House.

Foyle’s War is thrashing all-comers in crimetimepreview‘s poll of 2010’s top crime series. Only Sherlock is putting up a fight, with the likes of Spooks and Poirot taking a pasting. Just 13 days of voting to go…

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