When Entourage premiered on HBO in July, it was hailed by critics as the male version of Sex and the City—a half-hour comedy about four friends enjoying a lifestyle of nonstop sexual conquest and conspicuous consumption in a glitzy coastal city. From the beginning, HBO put a lot of eggs in Entourage' s basket, handing the fledgling show its Sunday night sweet spot and renewing it for a second season right after the first episode, despite disappointing ratings. The audience numbers—and arguably the writing—have slowly improved as the season progressed. Personally, I've never quite gotten the point of Entourage: I find it occasionally funny, intermittently sexist, and mildly boring. But the show has both rabid followers and dyed-in-the-wool detractors. As the season drew to a close last night, I found myself wondering: What kind of cultural nerve has this show hit? Who likes Entourage—and why?
Sex and the City's appeal was that it provided a conflict-free fantasy for female viewers. Whether or not you cared about (or could afford) $400 shoes or the latest downtown restaurant, the posh Manhattan setting provided a yummy backdrop against which to ponder the dilemmas of adult female life. But Entourage's quartet of buddies ups the ante considerably: They're not only rich and glamorous, they're young and, at least by proxy, famous. Their biggest problems are whether to lease a Rolls-Royce, what movie deal to accept, and how to retain their self-respect in the sycophantic world of Hollywood. The boys chase tail, procure dope, and tool around town in a bright yellow Hummer, until ... well, until the half-hour is up. Entourage is one of the most conflict-free shows in recent memory. Each episode revolves around good-natured, low-stakes banter and includes little if any action—an unusual choice in a show blatantly aimed at capturing the coveted 18- to 34-year-old male audience.
For its fans, Entourage is a wicked sendup of Los Angeles power politics. As a non-fan, I find it achieves that status only in Jeremy Piven's hilariously manic scenes as Ari Gold, Vince's bloodthirsty agent. But the vast majority of screen time is devoted to gentler scenes of the four friends (or some subset thereof) hanging out and shooting the bull, often with gorgeous women hanging off their necks like so many interchangeable accessories. In these scenes, the sharp satiric tone that characterizes the showbiz-related parts of the show softens to an almost elegiac mood as the boys jockey for power within their own small group, trading elaborate insults that are obviously masked expressions of love. For me, these male-bonding scenes slacken the pace of the show; I just want to get back to Ari's deals and hissy fits. But fan after fan told me that Entourage was at its best when it had nothing to do with Hollywood at all.
From journalists to high-school football coaches, the fans (mostly male) I interviewed said they liked the show because it captured a time in their lives when they actually lived more or less like Vince's posse. Without the Hummer and the starlets on tap, perhaps, but drifting in a similar haze of post-collegiate hedonism. The archetypes of the four friends—the preening alpha male (Vince), the conflicted but loyal best friend (Eric), the insecure but lovable buffoon (Drama), and the walking id (Turtle)—rang a bell with several viewers, and some even named the buddy they most identified with. (Just as Sex and the City fans used to say, "I'm Miranda." "I'm Carrie.")
One of the most common viewer complaints about Entourage is that nobody understands why Vincent Chase is famous in the first place. Sure, Adrian Grenier looks the part: He has the Byronic curls and dark, unibrowed handsomeness of a young Peter Gallagher. But Vince's character seems too passionless, unambitious, and easygoing to be a star; he's a cipher, a blank. His basic affect is a shrug. To detractors, the protagonist's apparent lack of star quality leaves a black hole in the middle of the show. But to the pro-Entourage contingent, Vince's apathy—the fact that he truly doesn't care about becoming a movie star—is the "genius touch," the detail that makes the show transcend its Los Angeles milieu and become a universal story of male friendship and twentysomething free fall. In fact, as Vince is constantly affirming, he only became an actor so he wouldn't have to work, a life plan that resonates with any ex-slacker.
Though Entourage's self-centered, lazy foursome may be worthy of satire, the show's fans identify with them anyway, remembering a time when they, too, socialized in lupine packs and couldn't be bothered to think beyond the next cute girl or cool gadget. Those, like me, who are immune to the show's charms see it as a broadly satiric portrait of four callow jerks. But Entourage has found its niche with those who look back fondly on a time when they could get away with being callow jerks, too.