Saturday, November 08, 2008

35. Entourage

When I put this list together about a year ago, “Entourage” was coming off of an uninspiring extended season and I was a little concerned at how the rest of the series would play out. However, I wasn't deterred for a one main reason.

I believe that the show got really popular very quickly, so HBO asked for more episodes to run alongside the last season of “The Sopranos” giving them a solid Sunday night line-up that did very well in the ratings. The way I looked at it, HBO saw that Sunday rotation as the 1986 Boston Red Sox starting rotation: you have one of the all-time greats as your number five starter (Tom Seaver in “The Sopranos” role) and you have a future all-time great as your number one (Roger Clemens as “Entourage”), a torch was going to be passed.

Fans of the old show would watch the new show and vice versa and HBO would keep it's strangle hold on Sunday nights. And to a degree it worked. The one unintended side effect is that the writers for “Entourage” couldn't keep up with the extended season, so there were a couple of clunker episodes and they were starting to believe their own hype. They were throwing everything at the wall and they didn't seem to care because “they're the new hot show”. At the time, I thought that cooler heads would prevail and that it would be no big deal.

But it is a big deal, the show is currently in its eighth episode of the new season and aside from some better scenes and marginally better episodes, this season is maybe a half-grade better than last. Chances are if I was creating this list this year, “Entourage” would have ranked much, much lower.

The question that I look to answer is whether two great early seasons outweigh one crappy and one meh season?

Let me first state that I never got into the whole “Entourage” scene with the first episode. I had heard that Mark Wahlberg was producing a show that was loosely based on his life and experiences when he and his buddies moved from Boston to Hollywood. I thought that it was going to be a vain ego project detailing how great he and his pals are and how every decision he has made is unquestionably the correct one. So I ignored it.

About a year or two later, I was talking to a friend and he was telling me about the show and when I gave him my uneducated opinion of an unwatched show, he told me that the show wasn't like that at all. It was an interesting look at the life of a young star, his washed-up half-brother and their two friends. He pleaded me to watch it because it was well-written, well-acted and there wasn't a lot of heavy lifting. Plus, he said, Jeremy Piven's character (super agent Ari Gold) steals every scene that he's in.

Intrigued, I Netflixed the first season and my wife and I were instantly hooked. We buzzed through the first season in about a week (curse Netflix and their slow deliveries) and we were going so fast through the second season that we weren't waiting for Netflix any more, we were going from Blockbuster to Blockbuster trying to find the discs that we hadn't seen yet. We were like crack heads—actually, that's too much of a boring cliché now. What's the popular drug that kids are doing now—methamphetamine! We were like meth heads looking for the next hillbilly to turn us on.

We cruised through the first half of the third season and were more than pumped for the second half of the third season and fourth season which ran back-to-back. That's when the bad times began.

Here's a hard and fast rule, the more that a show is hyped, the suckier it will be. And “Entourage” stuck to that rule.

The show was becoming trite and predictable and worse yet, there wasn't much of a direction. Yes, the over-arching plot of the season is that Vince (the series' main star and de facto Wahlberg) becomes the number one movie star in the world and bets his entire career on a project (the life and times of Pablo Escobar in a flick called "Medellin") that most studios didn't want to touch. Add to that mix that Vince wants his director, the obnoxiously demented Billy Walsh, to film the piece and you have the ingredients for a new star's abject failure.

And it was.

This wasn't the reason why the show stalled. Having Vince knocked off his pedestal was a stroke of genius and a bit of realism. However, the writers couldn't seem to come up with anything fresh.

Vince's best friend, manager and conscious of the show, Eric is becoming more and more of a Hollywood player and becomes one of the movie's producers after sinking everything he owns into the flick. He and Vince have their squabbles, as do he and Billy. The fights become more and more repetitive as the weeks go by. Billy calls Eric a “suit”, Eric gets his panties in a bunch and says something to Vince about the way Billy treats him and what his negative opinion of the movie. Vince says “If you don't believe in me or the script, you can have your money back”, Eric says he believes in Vince and they make up. Until the next week. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Problem number one: repetition.

In many of his fourth season scenes, Ari isn't interacting too much with the boys any more. This is a big problem because Ari by himself is boring. The best part of Piven's character is when he's losing his mind, yelling and screaming at people and acting like an uber-prick. For some reason, this is very endearing to the watcher (myself included) and Piven won an Emmy for this character. I think that he went to the writers and told them that he doesn't want to be a one-trick pony and to flesh out his character, or maybe they came up with this idea on their own. I don't know, but they did do this.

Instead of an alpha agent dick, we get an alpha agent dick at work and a neutered puss at home. I guess this dichotomy is supposed to add some layers to Ari's personality. It doesn't. It just makes him tough to take seriously. And I'm not blaming the writers one bit for this as Ari Gold is easily the best character on the show and they needed to expand his role. They couldn't go for the always yelling, always obnoxious character at home and at work because that would get annoying after just 10 minutes and for some reason sympathy (we wouldn't have sympathized with a constant screamer, I guess) equals character depth. So they went the other route.

Changing the show's focus is never a good idea, it ruined “Happy Days” when it went from being about Richie and his buddies to Super Fonz. Fonzi was once the coolest guy in Milwaukee, he didn't have a back story because he didn't need one. All of a sudden people were obsessed with Fonzi and wanted to know what made him tick. When the writers pulled back that curtain, they showed that there's an awful lot of stuff you don't want to know about Fonzi. To make up for that vulnerability, at the same time they made him even larger than life.

The writers did the same thing with Ari. At this point I wouldn't be surprised if Ari jumped four buses on a motorcycle out front of Arnold's hamburger stand.

Problem number two: Blowing up the ancillary characters and giving them contrasting depth.

Another thing that was done way too often in this and last season is the establishment of plots that died quick and anonymous deaths. For example, for two episodes, Turtle (a neighborhood friend who acts as a gofer for Vince) spends considerable time buttering up the father of a girl he wants to date. He finally gets the dad's blessing and after another episode gets date. The two have a good time and it seems as if the perpetually loveless Turtle has found his woman. Next week, we hear nothing about her. Nothing is said about this girl for the next three weeks. She's completely dropped from the show without explanation. To use another “Happy Days” analogy, she's the Chuck Cunningham of “Entourage”.

The other member of the group, perpetually clueless Johnny Drama (Vince's half-brother struggling actor) unexpectedly becomes a big television star. His story lines are even more infuriating as there are three or four plot lines that dropped off the face of the earth for him too. Same thing with Ari's assistant Lloyd.

As “The Sopranos” proved, not every plot needs an ending. As in real life, some times things just fade away. I completely understand that, but when you spend a better part of a season building up story lines and don't follow through that's not artistic license, that's giving your viewers blue balls. And after a while, when you do begin new plot lines, fewer people will care because they've been conditioned to believe that it doesn't matter. Who is going to invest time to care about a character when there isn't a pay out?

I've read that the reason for the dropped plot lines and the choppy story telling is due to the fact that there has been a lot of turnover in the writing staff and the producers were bringing in people who didn't understand the characters very well or don't really know the show's history. Whether that's true or not, there should be someone who has been there since day one going over scripts to make sure that everything fits into the Entourage universe.

And it's not just in the plot, there is no consistency in character development. One episode something significant happens and the next episode it's forgotten. The writers bring all of the characters back to square one, and this year Drama even said, “Well I guess everything is the same as its always been ... we're all back to where we started.”

Problem number three: lack of consistency.

With all of these complaints you'd wonder why I'd even watch this show week after week after week. The reason is simple, the show was awesome when it first began. There was a sense of fun and levity, a great way to end the weekend. Not a lot of thinking, just the continuing story of a few lucky friends that are going through life much like every one else—albeit in a very heightened material state of existence. Add in a bit of “I-may-have-been-able-to-do-what-they're-doing-too-if-I-really-worked-at-it-and-took-a-chance” escapism that also came with each episode.

I watch every week to get that feeling back. Yet, aside from a few glimmers here and there, I've never seen it.

The show can be saved. It just can't be done lazily. The show was on the teetering verge of being completely shaken up this year when Ari was going to accept a $10 million dollar a year salary to be a studio head. Yet, he turned it down because he likes Vince too much. Never mind that for 40+ episodes we've been conditioned to believe that Ari was a take-the-money-and-run agent who thought of his wallet first and everything else a distant second. In two seasons filled with questionable character traits, this is the biggest one. It almost seemed as if the writers looked at themselves and thought that they had written themselves into a corner. They didn't, they wrote themselves into a new room, but couldn't find the light switch, so they went back to their old, safe room.

Back to my point, it was on the verge of changing and then the writers reeled it back in to where it began, which is where Drama's line came from. The writers need to stop writing lazy and move things forward. I am no Hollywood insider, but I'd be shocked if a star's life is as stagnant as Vincent Chase's. After the Escobar debacle, the writers tried to have him start from the bottom but they brought him back too quickly.

They also have to understand what they have, the viewers like the characters, don't turn them into caricatures of themselves. Let them grow. Each week that Turtle and Drama find themselves in a sitcom-y situation, cheapens what the show has done. The writers shouldn't be afraid to allow Turtle to find some self worth or for Drama to stop acting liking a jackass.

After awhile the viewer starts questioning why the characters like each other and from there it's only a short jump to the viewer asking himself, “Why am I watching this show?” and turning to Sunday night football.

Tom Seaver would not approve.

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