Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Musings on Entourage Season 5

In response to recent reports of dwindling ratings and Entertainment Weekly’s dismissive coverage of a sixth season pickup (“Entourage gets yet another season. Even Johnny Drama wouldn’t want anything to do with it at this point.” P.12 October 17, 2008) I feel compelled to write a column in defense of Entourage season five and possibly develop into an episode recap column in the following weeks.

It’s true that the show has lost a certain degree of the unadulterated enjoyment on display in its first season and much of this is due to the program’s increased concern with depicting the business-side of an actor’s life. So much of the first season’s charm had to do with the ensemble’s chemistry and their opportunity to hang around without any real world concerns; any problem that did arise was strictly bro-centric. The mission statement of season one was aptly summarized in a line of Vinnie Chase’s dialogue: “Work? I got into this business so I wouldn’t have to work anymore.” Things have changed over the past few seasons and Vince’s career choices have started to yield repercussions. It puts a damper on the free-for-all party formula the show was founded on, but how could Entourage have continued for five years based solely on providing vicarious hedonism to the viewer? Offering a more in-depth look at the film side of Hollywood – rather than just the male Sex and the City equivalent LA lifestyle – was a necessity to continue storylines.

One of season five’s strongest qualities is the progression of the character of Eric. While the opening credits have always suggested and critics have long maintained that E is the show’s lead character rather than Vince, I’ve always considered that delineation to be debatable. Yes Vince is passive and his character isn’t usually asked to do much else than be alluring and self-confident (a quality performer Adrian Grenier is underappreciated at being able to pull off with an appearance of effortlessness) but as Vince is fundamentally the mobilizing plot element, especially in season two, I’ve always found the balance between Vince and E to either be too close to call or to sway slightly in favor of Vince. But with season five, I’m finally ready to proclaim E as the show’s protagonist (and what an interesting protagonist he will make for TV theorists to dissect after the show has completed). The writers’ decision to have E manage clients in addition to Vince is the primary reason for this shift. In the early years, the thinking seemed to be that having E as the new guy in town, the Hollywood outsider getting accustomed to the LA lifestyle, he would serve the main access point for the everyman viewer. However, E’s napoleon complex and hotheadedness often made him quite difficult to fully support whereas Vince’s charm and benevolence have always afforded him just enough good will to overcome any jealousy of his good fortune felt by the viewer. But as E has become more of a Hollywood player, he has also become steadily more identifiable. His napoleon complex has decreased; less time is wasted verbally wrestling with Ari and most importantly he’s presented as fallible. A major turning point in his character was episode 7 of season 2 “The Sundance Kids” when E had to face Harvey’s wrath after reneging on a business deal. This plot point was reprised beautifully in season 4 episode 4 “Sorry Harvey” when E sold Harvey the maligned Medellin – a move that would have proved beneficial as evidenced in the season 4 finale – and then had to muster the courage to tell Harvey he couldn’t have the movie after all. This season, we’ve seen E make mistakes dealing with Amanda, Ari and even Vince. As a result of seeing his weaknesses, empathy for his character has grown all the stronger. E has developed into a savvy businessman but still retains a humility evidenced in episode 4 “Fire Sale” when he admitted to Vince and Ari that he screwed up during his meeting with Amanda. Also helping is that Kevin Connelly’s comic timing has grown sharper and sharper over the years – despite still having the burden of throwing out lame one-liner insults during breakfast scenes with the guys.

I feel that the season’s two most recent episodes – “Tree Trippers” and “Redomption” – have been particularly strong. The former, in which the boys and Ari enlist Eric Roberts to guide them on a mushroom-fueled trip designed to help Vince decide whether or not to take an easy paycheck movie, was significant because it recaptured some of the plot-less glory of the first season. The episode was primarily set in the desert (with a few cutaways to Lloyd) and had fairly little plot machinations to deal with. Instead it was all about hanging with the bros and helping a mystified friend try to make a tough life decision. Rob Hunter at Film School Rejects chided the episode’s lack of conflict, “It would hardly be an exaggeration to say absolutely nothing happens in this episode,” but also praised it for being “one of the funniest episodes of the season so far.” I agree with his second assertion but don’t see his first complaint as a problem. Entourage often works best when it doesn’t have an ostensible plot. The plot developments in classic episodes like “Date Night,” “Aquamansion” and “One Day in the Valley” can be summarized in twenty seconds of dialogue but it’s the group interaction that’s indispensible. “Tree Trippers” provided an excuse for the main characters to spend time together without any outside commitments. I think the change in pace was a much welcome diversion from the preceding Smokejumpers-driven episodes. The most recent episode, which saw the dreaded return of Dom, was an even bigger surprise and my vote for the season’s strongest episode so far. Dom, the repulsive thug who had a two-episode stint at the beginning of season 3 but left such a foul impression that you’re likely to remember his presence as infecting the entirety of season 3 part 1, returned for what is presumably a one-episode sendoff. Again, Dom was in legal trouble and begging Vinnie for help. As in season 3, E was skeptical of Dom’s intentions but as it turned out, Dom has somewhat reformed and even has a kid. The moment when Vince and E watch Dom cradling his baby and Vince’s simple comment “Can you believe it? Dom a dad?” was one of the series’ most poignant moments and also a reminder of the central characters’ increasing ages. For one of the first times, we get a sense of the characters subconsciously acknowledging that their charmed Hollywood lives come at the expense of leading a traditional life and its home-based values. Nothing may come of it but it seemed to be a considerable flicker of recognition that their plush homo-social existence could be a hindrance to their ever fully achieving maturity.

Even though this article is designed to be a defense of Entourage’s latter years, it is not intended to be a blind endorsement that the show is just as strong as it used to be. The truth of the matter is that it’s not. Some of the magic is lost and unlike Johnny Drama’s career, the show hasn’t grown better with age. The end of a new episode of Entourage used to leave me wanting more. High on a combination of male camaraderie and intriguing plot developments, once 10:30 rolled around I often found myself returning to my DVD rack and putting on a few more episodes to satiate the desire of living the imaginary life of Entourage for a little while longer. These days I’m able to turn off the TV at 10:30 and head off to bed shortly thereafter, content but no longer pulsating with giddiness after a rollicking good time with the boys. However, I still think it’s one of the strongest comedies on television and the two most recent episodes are evidence of its vitality. In “Tree Trippers” the writers demonstrated they haven’t completely lost focus of the show’s original impetus to present a heedless ‘joie de vivre’ but in “Redomption” the writers also showed that they’re open to change.

Oh, and the other brilliant move in Sunday’s episode? Bringing back Martin Landau’s sublimely played aged-producer Bob Ryan to dole out some hilarious verbal abuse on Ari. More Bob Ryan? I think we can all agree that’s something we might be interested in.


Jonathan M said...

A fine recap.

My view on the later series is that when they work, they work very well indeed. I definitely enjoyed E's growth and his dealings with the industry (as well as the dawning realisation that while Ari comes across as completely unprofessional and emotive, there are some professional ethics there and a realisation of how the game is played).

My issue with the later series is not with the individual episodes (which I think are by and large strong) but with the management of the show at the series level. It seems that the executive producers have allowed the show to migrate from a free-wheeling sex and the city thing to a more focused comedy drama that requires some discipline in terms of world-building and characterisation, which they really seem to struggle with.

For example, there's the arc in which Turtle tries to seduce the daughter of the mechanic and it has some nice moments but it then stops, the reset button is hit and Turte's back to shagging prostitutes and smoking weed in front of the XBox.

In a free-wheeling comedy you can do that kind of thing but you can't in a drama as those episodes evolved Turtle and added to the world.

I also think that drama has a different emotional register to it. In a comedy I think hopping into bed with prostitutes is fair enough because it's supposed to be funny, but if you then round out that character and make it more believable his 'funny' whore-shagging becomes actually quite distasteful.

In a comedy the threshold for credibility is a lot higher than in Drama. Gilligan's Island worked as a sitcom but as a drama it would be unwatchable. I think this is why the later series don't 'work' as well as the earlier ones. There's been a sea-change in the levels of credibility required to sustain an entire series.

Jonathan M said...

I meant that the threshold for comedy is lower... Samantha in S and the City worked in PR and the lack of attention to detail allowed the writers a good deal of lea-way when using that in plots.

But they've made a lot of the details of E and Vince's wheeler-dealing. Rightdown to finding office space. Once you go down the 'realistic' road,it's difficult to reverse course and go all whimsical and free-wheeling. The reverse is true too.

Stephen Snart said...

You make a great point with your distinction between the free-reeling road and the realistic road. Ditto on your comment about the management of the show at a series level. The dropping of Turtle's relationship with the mechanic's daughter is a perfect illustration of your point. I often get a bit peeved at some of the show's lineage inconsistencies, particularly Drama's statement that he and Vince share the same father in season 1 being reversed in the episode "Aquamom" where the writers rewrote history so that Vince and Drama share a mother rather than a father (an inconsistency Doug Ellin willingly points out in a featurette on the season four DVD).

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