The Bro Kings
How Entourage went from critical darling to cultural punching bag.
Filming has wrapped. The release date is set. Vince did the movie. There is no longer anything any of us can do to stop it. Much to the chagrin of critics everywhere, the Entourage franchise is plowing ahead. There may even be more Entourage movies if Mark Wahlberg and Doug Ellin have anything to say about it.
At this point, Entourage seems likely to find two stumbling second lives: one, perhaps, as a series of increasingly clichéd films that jettison any semblance of humanity in favor of unrelenting, big-budget fan service, and the other as a boogeyman—a convenient ghost story of cocaine-fueled entitlement, used by writers as a font of inspiration for surreal, hilarious art. But as the saga of Vinnie and the boys continues on the silver screen, prompting most of the Internet to either declare plans to see the movie drunk or proclaim a willingness to die before setting foot in the theater (or at least raise a lot of money for charity), we are at an ever-increasing risk of forgetting an important fact: We all used to like Entourage a lot.
The first season of Entourage was, if not a critical darling, at least reasonably respected. In 2004, the New York Times’ Alessandra Stanley claimed, “Nothing on network television is smart, original and amusing as Entourage.” Ken Tucker, then of Entertainment Weekly, wrote that Entourage was “excellent, dirty fun” and suggested that it functioned well as a satire of the film business. Tim Goodman, then of the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote that, while Entourage was “nearly soulless,” it was also “HBO’s next bit of appointment television.”
This praise is a far cry from the vast, unceasing stream of critical urine that has continued to soak the dirt of Entourage’s grave. Sure, Entourage lost fans over the course of its eight seasons. But even reviews of the show’s final season proved that it still had enough residual goodwill to, at the very least, be mostly ignored by people who weren’t fans. In advance of the final season, Goodman reflected on the earlier years of the show, this time for the Hollywood Reporter, capturing the sadness of the passage of time in Hollywood: “It turns out there really wasn’t a message—at least not a profound one.” Drama, Turtle, and the gang had gotten older, but they had not aged in any meaningful way—the review kindest to the final season, again by Tucker, reads primarily as a restatement of the premise of the show and an affirmation that its low-stakes goofiness is pleasant enough to justify half an hour of your time.
So, in the space between the season finale and the announcement of the Entourage movie, what changed? The easiest (but also most boring) answer is that nothing did—the first couple of seasons are generally entertaining, but as the show continued to hit the same beats over and over again, it became difficult to take anything that happened even remotely seriously. The very premise of Entourage collapsed as it became clear that Vince was a terrible actor, the kind of guy who really wants to do a serious Pablo Escobar biopic because Pablo Escobar is badass, but doesn’t come close to possessing the acting chops of a Daniel Day-Lewis, or even a Johnny Depp. (Adam Sternbergh has a masterful and specific look at Vinnie’s bad acting skills, and the way they brought down the show, over at Vulture.) Even an attempt to get serious at the end, when Vince deals with addiction, doesn’t change the status quo much. “You can’t sell vapid to get back honest emotion,” Goodman wrote. Eventually, it became hard to remember that you weren’t watching this parody:
But there’s more to the changing tide of Entourage’s cultural reception than that. It’s not just that Entourage didn’t evolve—it’s that the whole conversation around TV did. Needless to say, pop-culture criticism as a whole now pays far more aggressive, fine-grained attention to the political implications of art within the context of criticism. We increasingly consider aesthetic judgments to at least overlap with ethical ones, in part if not entirely. This change has allowed for some of the best TV criticism of the past few years, coming from some of the best critics. It’s led one of the most popular shows on the air to be flayed to the bone every time it airs a rape scene. It’s spearheaded the critical reevaluation of Friends. (OK, Chandler is the worst.) Yes, it has also produced plenty of ham-fisted and wrongheaded analysis—but, no matter your opinion on it, this analytical mode is now built into the way we talk about culture.
Accordingly, Entourage’s biggest sin is not being substance-less or too flashy or having an endless parade of famous people for no reason other than to show off the breathtaking awesomeness of everyone involved. The reason Entourage fell out of favor? Its highly objectionable ethic of bro-ness.
On Entourage, if you stick by your bros, nothing you do is truly bad. No one else is entitled to be treated as a real person. And as much as the bros squabble, like any good TV cast, they cling together in a bubble of co-dependency—so they get what they want, almost unfailingly. There’s a reason the recently released clips from the movie show everyone appropriately slotted into their place in the world: Vince is doing the movie (unburdened from his marriage—because ew, commitment); Ari is back in the game and happy with his wife; Drama is mocked in the pursuit of mild success which he will quixotically attain; Turtle likes a famous woman who will humiliate him and then allow him to enforce archaic gender norms; and E gets to sit in a chair next to Vince. Great work, everybody!
Bros, of course, have existed for centuries—millennia, even. One of our oldest Judeo-Christian religious stories is, like a twisted, unholy version of Entourage, about a bro bond gone wrong. And when Entourage premiered, the “bro” was on the rise as a cultural ideal. There was a whole Bro Code book, a How I Met your Mother tie-in, published in 2008. For a moment, many of our biggest movie stars were celebrated as chill bros. But now, pop culture has turned on bros. The bro is played out; his natural habitat increasingly, rightly vilified. He’s been turned into an object of study, to the point that the word itself might be disappearing.
So it’s not just that the characters of Entourage always win; this happens on tons of shows. It’s not just that they don’t grow, or even that they’re surrounded by people-shaped obstacles. A world full of cartoon humans is one thing—Seinfeld had one, It’s Always Sunny has one, and 30 Rock turned having one into its own minor art form. But a world where the only real people are a tight-knit band of white guys who have done nothing of substance to earn their wealth hits us painfully close to where we—the rest of the country—live, in Hollywood, in Washington, and on Wall Street. And the zeitgeist could not be more intolerant of them. These, after all, are the people who are, if not responsible for much of the problems the world faces, at least the ones who unthinkingly benefit the most from it. As much as they might protest and form clubs for themselves and complain about Mad Max, there’s a profound lack of self-awareness at work in the machinations of our nation of bros and their avatars, Vinnie and the gang. (Notably, one of the show’s best episodes punctures this delusion, if only for a moment.)
Entourage’s hollow endorsement of bro culture doesn’t mean there can’t be any shows about bros—far from it. Prodding people in power is one of the most important things art can do (along with finding their humanity amid the rubble). Compare Entourage to Silicon Valley, a current HBO half-hour which does a much better job of poking holes in the pretensions of its cast, and, more importantly, allows for legitimate momentum and character arcs. The closest thing Entourage had to real conflict was E’s attempt to be a decent human being, usually because of a woman—and that plot grew staler than Vince’s acting. Where Silicon Valley has actual storylines and fleshed-out comic characters (including several women), Entourage went in circles before giving all of its characters a happy ending, simply because they were the protagonists of a TV show.
You could even compare the critical arc of Entourage to another show that was widely derided before being transformed into a series of films—this one, if you will, about lady bros: Sex and the City. The series persisted as an object of cultural love for pretty much the entirety of its run, but the movie was roundly panned as a misogynistic self-caricature cratering its own legacy.
But Emily Nussbaum’s defense and re-evaluation of the show is some of the best critical writing about TV from the past few years, capable of allowing for all of the show’s flaws—namely, the way it gave in to its basest rom-com impulses at the end—while reading it as, for the most part, a trenchant examination of the tropes undergirding that genre, and an interrogation of femininity. Nussbaum argues that deep down, as a piece of art, Sex and the City achieves some greater meaning—exactly what Entourage, in its sleepless moments, aspires to do but knows it never really can. It’s possible we’ll see a similarly compelling essay cementing Entourage’s place in the TV canon and praising Ari Gold’s chest hair some time in 2023 (around the time Entourage 7 hits theaters). But I doubt it. At this point, the golden age of bros is too far gone.