Written by: Lance Carmichael, CC2K Staff Writer
Getting Better All the Time
The NBA draft was held this past week. This is an event where multi-million dollar corporations spend millions of their multi-million dollars projecting how good basketball prospects will turn out to be at some point in the interminable future, and where that fits in with their needs. It often comes down to weighing the short-term vs. long-term needs of a franchise: a raw, seven-foot prospect from Croatia, who someday might turn out to be the next Larry Bird, say, versus a tested NCAA senior who can step in and immediately contribute fifteen points and seven rebounds a night, but who’s probably not going to mature into a dominant player. This is called a player’s “ceiling”–how good he might eventually become with seasoning, professional-grade coaching, and experience.
The same rules rarely apply in the world of television. Shows are expected to come on and perform immediately; if not, they’re cancelled. This goes for “art television” (once thought an oxymoron, now brought gloriously to life by HBO and its followers in the past few years) as it does in mainstream TV, which we’re not going to bother talking about here. The Sopranos, which is pretty much the golden yardstick in Art TV, is remembered as an immediate hit, a show that came out an instant classic, fully-formed. The first two season are still remembered as the best (It’s only fair to point out that the pilot, while having everything in it that Sopranos fans would come to expect, is still flawed by its reliance on a somewhat gimmicky flashback structure that mastermind David Chase initially wanted to use across the entire series. Everything would be told from the analyst’s couch in Dr. Melfi’s office, and everything would be shown in flashbacks as it was talked about there. This is how the pilot works, and thankfully Chase was savvy enough to recognize that it would have been far too limiting for a multi-character epic like the Sopranos if we could have never broken away from Tony’s perspective. Still, a tiny bit of formal elegance of the series is lost since the pilot is a bit of a different beast than the rest of the series, diminishing the Sopranos approach to perfection by a hair.).
The basic premise of this article is that Entourage is not a Lebron James type of show like the Sorpanos is and was–one of those freaks of nature that came into the league and immediately performed at an All Star level. It’s more of a Yao Ming-like show that was picked up, made, and watched because of its enormous potential, but had a steep learning curve to overcome.
Entourage had one of the best show ideas of all time, and that was both its blessing and its curse. Our worship of instant celebrity and the rewards of fame has become so acute that it was high time a quality, non-MTV, not-too-insulting-to-the-intelligence show came along and let us watch some people enjoy our new version of heaven, the one we all secretly think our due and fate. Entourage came along at the perfect time, and in the perfect place, as well: HBO, the seal of quality that let us off the hook for watching something seemingly ripped out of the headlines of Maxim magazine.
But this was also its Achilles Heel. The premise was too good, and the creators got a little lazy in execution. They spent all their casting money on one great character actor playing a meaty role–Jeremy Piven as the weasely, semi-lovable agent Ari Gold–and cast three unknowns and one mostly unknown in the pivotal roles in the show. The Sports Guy broke down the first season of the show perfectly: he claimed the show’s ceiling was only so high because they cast such lightweights in the lead roles of Vince–the movie star–and Eric–his best friend and manager. And he’s right: each of these guys has exactly one expression and a tiny range in which they can believably emote. Eric should be the Tony Soprano of the show: he’s the one character with any shred of self-conscious intelligence. Turtle, Drama (more on him in a minute), Vince, and even Ari are either too myopic or outright dim to critically reflect on how Vince’s meteoric rise to the top of movie stardom has changed them as people, for better and worse (in fact, they pretty much skip exploring the worse part all together, which is probably the crucial mistake that’ll keep Entourage merely good, never great, despite all the other fixes they’ve already effected). This is the Sorpanos formula exactly: Tony is the only mobster in Jersey and New York (with the partial exception of Sylvio) who ever shows any ability to see how he acts with any perspective, who can ponder if he’s living the best possible life he can, a task that three other intelligent characters (who all happen to be women) are there to help him focus on–Dr. Melfi being the most important, of course, with Carmela (the human guilt trip) and Meadow (educated enlightenment) there to help. If you really think about it, the main theme of the Sorpanos is that the male animal–never sated, always wanting more no matter what the personal costs to himself and those around him–allowing itself to become domesticated by women is his only chance at (partial) salvation.
Entourage never has and never will get remotely close to exploring these kinds of profound depths. Granted, it’s pitched as a comedy, and doesn’t have the tragic pretensions of the Sopranos or any of the other HBO full-hour dramas, but that doesn’t mean we should excuse them. It’s HBO; if the creators had asked for a fuller emotional canvas to work on, we can assume they would have been given it. Other than its initial conception as Sex and the City-like popcorn, a large part of the blame for the show’s helium-like weight has to fall on the shoulders of Kevin Connolly, who plays Eric, Vince’s human superego. James Gandolfini–obviously with the help of some genius writers and very intelligent directors–paints his character with hundreds of shades of nuance and complexity. Kevin Connolly, in my opinion, is unfortunately far too slight an actor to even attempt that should the writers and directors ever get that ambitious. And that’s a shame, because Entourage will never rise above its current level of Very Passable Entertainment as a result. It’s a silly premise to being with (what can the life of a super-rich movie star teach us about real life?), but so is the Sopranos, really (what can a sociopathic mafia don teach us about real life?). The miracle of the Sopranos is that it does teach us about life, or at least show us some pretty damn compelling examples of it. Entourage could be about the slow, imperceptible sadness of outgrowing your roots, your family, and your childhood friends, while still letting us get some vicarious thrills in (much like how the Sopranos explores the realities of turn-of-the-current-century family life while also giving us copious amounts of mob killings, strippers, sudden violence, stupidity, and lots of other things primal pleasures we all deny ourselves). It could be a lesson in how radically changed life circumstances can have some great benefits, but you’re still subject to the same existential laws as you were before your transformation (another key theme of the Sorpanos). But it chooses to ignore all this, and just allows us to be voyeurs in young, rich, famous Hollywood.
And there are a lot worse things than that.
The first season of Entourage coasted by on its premise–and Jeremy Piven–alone. Its biggest problem was its lack of conflict, which, as we all learned in the eighth grade, is the engine of drama. The whole point of the series was that all the roadblocks were removed for these guys, and every wish they’d ever had could be instantly granted. It worked for a while due to a show finally giving us what we really wanted, but the show was basically an unchanging tableau of Vince, Eric, Drama and Turtle walking into one hot party after another, surveying all the smoking chicks there, and high-fiving. The guys were all generically likeable, and it was all somewhat charming, and the eye candy was good. But I remember being slightly surprised the show was picked up for a second season. The creators clearly had no big ideas on their minds. The show was an endless series of triumphs. What more was there to be said?
Luckily, either through an infusion of new writers or some dark nights of soul-searching, the makers of Entourage recognized the virtues of conflict and began experimentally sprinkling it in the show’s second season. Vince didn’t want to do Aquaman; Ari was worried. James Cameron was thinking of casting someone else to play Aquaman; Ari was worried. Alex from A Clockwork Orange came out of retirement and forced Ari out of the agency; Ari was worried. But the best subplot of all, surprisingly, involved Mandy Moore. We finally saw the supercool Vince’s kryptonite: his unslayable puppy love for Mandy Moore, who he worked with on one of his first jobs. Vince’s position as a huge movie star was finally put in (slight) jeopardy by his mildly crazy antics whenever she was around. Ari was worried, Eric was worried, even Turtle and Drama were worried. For the first time in the series’ short history, we were left actually asking the question What comes next?…while also being titillated by all the expected fetishism of the perks of being young, rich, and famous.
Side note about Kevin Dillon: There’s really no graceful place to put this in, so let me just take a time out to praise Kevin Dillon’s performance as Johnny Drama, Vince’s half-brother. It’s not easy to play stupid. No one actually thinks of themselves as stupid, so when you’re playing a stupid character, you have to do stupid things the audience can laugh at, yet stay true to the character, who thinks he’s actually acting intelligently. Dillon (who shows the same surprising knack for comedy that his more famous brother did in There’s Something About Mary) and the show’s writers do this with surprising ease (surprising given the show’s cudgel-like approach to every other character). Dillon even adds an extra dimension: Drama’s puffy-chested posing and egoism is undercut by a very sweet, vulnerable side. E.g. Drama, a skeazy sexist greaseball, also takes great pride in cooking all the meals for the other guys, including meatloaf. Dillon cuts the cocksureness of a dim-witted wannabe ladies man with the loyal vulnerability of an also-ran and the genuine sweetness of an actual decent person in a way that’s kind of new, a type of character we’ve rarely seen before. It doesn’t hurt that he’s usually acting against three blanks (the guys who play Vince, Eric and Turtle) and, just like Piven, always comes out looking great in comparison.
Season 3 continues the trend of pouring more and more conflict into the show, while still refusing to veer away from the series’ formula of one-triumph-after-another. One of the most recent episizodes found a new childhood friend–an ex-con, played by the inarticulate bull-man who was also in The Wire (and who’s name I’m not sure how to track down on the IMDB…basically, he’s the poor man’s Jon Favreau (the fat Jon Favreau of “Dinner for Five,” not the slightly-overweight Favreau of Swingers). He’s the kind of guy who can screw everything up for the titular entourage, the character Joe Pesci would be playing if Martin Scorsese guest-directed an episode. The loose cannon in an otherwise solid crew has been the foundation of about eighteen million different movies, TV shows, books, and plays. And it always comes up because it works. It’s like a tit shot in a movie: no matter how bad you fuck up everything else, as long as you expose the film properly, it’s still going to be pretty good. The biggest conflict between the four guys in theentourage up until now has been who gets to finger-bang Vince’s sloppy seconds at the awesome party they’re at. How did it take two and a half seasons to realize the show could be so much more exciting and engrossing if you just up the stakes, threaten the characters’ lives as they know it, and give us a little conflict? It may have taken a while, but at least they’re finally learning. Maybe Entourage will join perennial MVP The Sopranos on at least one All-Star team yet…
All in all, Entourage still hasn’t broken out of its Lad Show genre, another indicator it still belongs firmly in the Guilty Pleasure camp. How do I know? Have you ever tried watching Entourage with a female present? Try getting through five whole minutes of the show without them snickering or making you feel bad about yourself for watching it. It’s got about the same appeal for women as porn: I’m sure there are some women out there who watch it for a reason beyond confirming their worst assumptions about men, but there aren’t many. Watching Turtle condescendingly hit on some bimbo in a hot West Hollywood club has about the same appeal for most guys’ significant others’ as watching Jenna Jameson take a D.P. in slow motion. I’m not saying all great shows have to appeal to every member of every gender, but there should at least be a significant enlightened minority out of the target demographic who “gets it.” Hey, if I can get my girlfriend to consider The Shield one of her favorite shows ever (a recent episode featured the police chief being forced to perform fellatio on a gangbanger at gunpoint–nice!), then there’s hope for Entourage. They’re just not there yet.