On Gilded Sharks and Loverboys
On Sunday the new season of HBO’s “Entourage” comes in like a lamb: a cuddly, fluffy, annoying little lamb. It’s disturbing. Obnoxious “Entourage” looks all sweet, buttoning its jokes up tight and cutting away to broad reaction shots. This makes a fan extremely wary.
And there’s a reason for that wariness, one that’s particular to “Entourage.” In spite of its sustained success, this is not a series you can trust. As a chronicle of hopes fostered and dashed in Hollywood, it seems perpetually ready to stab its loyalists in the back.
And then there’s Jeremy Piven. Honestly, in the off seasons he looks ready to lose it. Can he really continue playing Ari Gold, the jerk superagent, without getting delusions and landing in ego-disorder rehab? And what about Adrian Grenier? Can he keep playing the huge movie star Vince on television without being a movie star in life?
And finally there’s the fact, known to any longtime viewer of the series, that “Entourage” made a grim first impression. Three years ago, when it began as a hasty replacement for “Sex and the City,” this story of a Hollywood idol from Queens and his homeboy hangers-on seemed more smug than satirical and also somehow short-tempered, as if it resented having to prove to an audience what a cool premise it was and how hilarious and awesome it was going to be.
But then, without warning, it became great. Mr. Piven rose to center stage, and he devoured scenery with his shark jaws. In response the other actors stepped up their performances, until each character came into sharp focus. Vince is not more than a pretty face. He is the exact realization of his beauty: lazy, generous, fearful of solitude. At the same time Drama (Kevin Dillon), his half brother, now expresses the sorrows of male vanity without being beautiful or self-possessed. And as Turtle (Jerry Ferrara), the operations man, grows into his skills as an entrepreneur, he may make an end run around all the pretty boys and square off with Ari.
More than anyone else on the show Eric Murphy (Kevin Connolly), Vince’s Tom Hagen, is nothing without Vince. He’s smart, he’s discreet, he’s worried, he’s vulnerable. If this were a mafia drama (and isn’t it?) he would die in a shootout.
At its best then, as in the parking-garage showdown between Ari and his master, Terrance McQuewick (Malcolm McDowell), in Season 2, “Entourage” has been an exhilarating challenge to the immune system, one that leaves you more awake, more amused and even a little more alive.
But no one trusts “Entourage.” The writers’ room seems to run on fury and Red Bull, and the stunt-casting of sidelined but brilliant American comediennes (Beverly D’Angelo, Laraine Newman, Nora Dunn), while shrewd, doesn’t quite make up for the show’s profound misogyny.
Or does it? You just never know what “Entourage” is trying to pull.
But back to this season and its cute start. Drama is posing while Turtle snaps photos of him in front of the billboard for “Five Towns,” Drama’s new show. Eric and Vince drive up and they all goof around, Abercrombie & Fitch-style. Your heart sinks. This is it, you think: the end of “Entourage.” And the eyeful you soon get of Carla Gugino as Amanda, Vince’s new agent, doesn’t help.
Ms. Gugino, twinkly eyed and fair-skinned, is a television veteran with several multi-episode arcs and one canceled series (“Karen Sisco”) in her past; producers like to cast her. But she’s too sweet-tempered. She may be smart, but she shouldn’t play detectives or agents. She doesn’t swear convincingly.
That’s Whoville for now: the four guys and Amanda, the sweet agent. She proposes that Vince star in an Edith Wharton adaptation (“The Glimpses of the Moon”), directed by Sam Mendes. And maybe that mention of Wharton is when the penny drops. Everything on “Entourage” is going to be all right.
Because Ari is never, ever going to let that happen. Scheming from his icy glass office, he has a plan to win back Vince, who left him last season. This effort will have to be heroic, and it will cost Ari more than his poise; it may cost him his sanity.
As the season wears on, the spectacle of Ari’s heartbreak over losing Vince becomes wrenching. This relationship has been the central romance of the series. And now beautiful Vince is indifferent to Ari’s agony. This season is about how men love men, and how they hate themselves for loving men, and how they worry about loving men, and how they need to stand up to men so they can love women, or stand up to women so they can love men.
After the treacle of the first few scenes falls away — and the contemporary irrelevance of Wharton-style abstinence is made plain — this tangle of imperatives enters the drama as Ari seems to fall apart with heartsickness. When, a few episodes into the season, he accosts his therapist (Nora Dunn) on the golf course, to give him some help, you know the series is back and better than ever, and that we would all be fools not to sign with old Ari and his band of loverboys for one more season.