When I mentioned last week that I've been unable to warm up to the HBO hit Entourage, I was inundated with e-mails defending the show. As many readers pointed out, there's nothing surprising about the fact that an affectionate portrait of young-straight-guy wish fulfillment, complete with Hummers, babes, and bling, would find an eager following. When I wrote that I was "baffled" by the show's success, what I should have said is: I'm baffled by its critical success. Critics from the New York Times' Virginia Heffernan (who finds in the show's dialogue "the delicious poison of a David Mamet play") to the San Francisco Chronicle's Tim Goodman ("[creator Doug] Ellin tells good stories, period") have anointed the show as television's sharpest satire.
Is it only me who finds Entourage's patter cringeworthy and its plotlines meandering? Mamet's dialogue is funny because of the jaundiced distance it takes from the self-deluded characters. The creators of Entourage, on the other hand, seem too close to their creations to subject them to any but the gentlest ridicule. At their worst, the boys' hijinks (last week, they sent Ari on a 14-hour wild goose chase up the California coast, just to f*** with his head) are presented as the occasion for indulgent eye-rolling: Boys will be boys, after all, and uptight Hollywood agents will be uptight Hollywood agents. Entourage has its pleasures— the vicarious joy of identification, I suppose, being chief among them— but they are not the pleasures of satire. Watching Vince and his cohorts choose among multimillion-dollar projects and fawning starlets is like watching a spoiled child at Disneyland, deliberating between the pink and the blue cotton candy.
So, as a self-appointed script doctor, allow me to submit a list of suggestions for how to improve HBO's wunderkind series. I know perfectly well that Entourage doesn't need my help; while its ratings aren't stratospheric (averaging less than 2 million viewers per episode), it's the kind of buzzworthy show that's watched by the right people—namely, the 18-to-34-year-old males whose lustful whims now dictate the tenor of popular culture. But even with that in mind, here are a few ways to make Entourage watchable for the rest of us:
1. Get a real female character. This is not merely a feminist plea for equal representation (although it would be nice to see my half of the human race shown as something besides Uggs-wearing ditzes). I think balancing the yang with a little yin would improve the show. She doesn't have to be a brilliant or even likeable woman: My tip would be to explore the after-hours life of Shauna (Debi Mazar), Vince's bitchy, hard-boiled publicist. What does Shauna do in her time off? Is she single? Divorced? A mother? A dyke? And how did she get from the New Jersey roots her accent suggests to the world of high-end talent representation? As Television Without Pity noted in the first season (before the site stopped covering Entourage out of sheer boredom), Mazar has always given off a distinct Cosa Nostra vibe, the impression that "she's got a guy that'll replace your blood with cherry 7-Up and make it look like an accident." The show's writers should give Shauna chance to show her fangs, and maybe even her soft underbelly.
2. Explore the dark side. Even more annoying than Entourage's sexism is its insipid cheeriness. As show's tagline reads, "Fame … it's even better with your friends!" This "it's-all-good" ethos reached its apogee at the end of the recent Sundance episode: Vince (Adrian Grenier) and Eric (Kevin Connolly) were poised to snowboard down a mountain with their pals when they got a cellphone call from Ari (Jeremy Piven) assuring them that Vince had landed the lead role in Aquaman. The two of them actually high-fived before jumping on to their snowboards. The episode ended, '70s-sitcom style, in a giddy freeze-frame as the boys took flight over the mountain. Isn't there anything, you know, negative about being rich and famous?
3. Chill out on the Drama/Turtle subplots. The comedic interludes involving these two buffoons (played by Kevin Dillon and Jerry Ferrara) are taking over the show. Last week's episode found them cruising L.A.'s black neighborhoods to track down the creator of a rap demo. When Johnny Drama (Dillon) dusted off a decades-old blaxploitation persona ("Hello, girl. We're looking for a silky-smooth rhyming cat named Saigon"), the joke was so broad it fell flat. Johnny's level of cluelessness seems to rise and fall according to the needs of each individual scene. And Turtle's (Ferrara) role in the Entourage foursome is still as unclear as the job of the "culture" guy on Queer Eye: He drives the car, smokes weed, and—what else again?
4. Givethe boys a back story. What was the ethnic makeup of the neighborhood they lived in back in Queens? (Turtle brags of his Sicilian ancestry, while Eric is lace-curtain Irish. Johnny and Vince, who look nothing alike despite their status as half-brothers, seem vaguely Italian, though their last name, Chase, is blandly Anglo.) Are Vince and Johnny's family back home psyched about their younger son's success? Does Vince send them money? To believe in the East Coast/West Coast culture shock the show is supposedly built around, we need a little texture here.
5. Either cut out or magnify the real-life celebrity cameos. An example: Melinda Clarke, the temptress from The O.C., appeared in a recent episode as the wife of Terrance (Malcolm MacDowell), the head of the talent agency that represents Vince. She was introduced as "Melinda," stood around by Terrance's side for a while, and disappeared. In the end, the effect of the cameo was little more than a frustrating tease. Is Melinda Clarke married to MacDowell in real life? (Nope.) Is she married to a real-life agent on whom Terrance is based? (Again, no—Clarke's real husband is an actor with a Johnny Drama-style résumé, which would have made for a much funnier storyline.) Without some reason for this interface between fiction and life, the cameos add nothing but a vague frisson of recognition.
The problems with Entourage's verisimilitude don't stop there. For all the show's obsession with Hollywood power games, its portrait of the celebrity milieu is strangely imprecise. Exactly how famous is Vince? Brad Pitt-level famous? Apparently not, since he can wander the streets of L.A. freely and drop into trendy restaurants without being mobbed by paparazzi. Or is Vince more of a cult phenomenon, an up-and-coming indie actor—say, Jeremy Piven-famous? His choices of roles would indicate the latter, while his income level and position in the pecking order seem to hint at the former. A Times article from last week claims that Entourage has become the talk of the soy-chai bars in Hollywood, with talent agents asking each other, "Did you hear what Ari said?" Is this because the show reflects what the lives of movie insiders really are, or because it projects what they would like them to be?