April 18, 2007

Entourage and the Hollywood Redemption

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It would be no shocking revelation to suggest Americans worship at the alter of Hollywood. It would be equally obvious to suggest Hollywood loves itself just as much as we do. Consider all the films ever made about show business and the mythic “dream factory.” Next to the mismatched buddy-cop duo, Hollywood is Hollywood’s favorite subject.
Yet, the portrait of Hollywood painted by Hollywood films hardly ever reflects California’s radiant sun. From A Star is Born to The Player, Hollywood films view “the industry” as a bastion of backstabbing, greed, corruption, and murder. The dead screenwriter Joe Gillis floating face down in Norma Desmond’s swimming pool perfectly captures Hollywood’s consistent self-image: the putrefaction of glamour.
That’s what makes Entourage somewhat of a novelty in the subgenre of Hollywood on Hollywood fiction, because it does not depict the town as a cesspool. The series celebrates show business excess, greed and hardly ever offers the downsides to lavish celebrity lifestyles. The major plotlines deal with Vince’s movie career and the wheeling-and-dealing that accompanies “the biz,” but those stories always feel incidental to the salacious environment depicted by the show. The Hollywood of Entourage is a playground for young, beautiful people to spend lots of money and never get into serious trouble. The biggest drama in A-list star Vincent Chase’s life is landing the big movie role. The biggest worry faced by his entourage of Johnny Drama, Eric, and Turtle, is that he won’t.
This lack of dramatic intensity is a problem that sometimes plagues the otherwise very likable, very funny series. We’re supposed to root for the quartet from Queens, because they’re Hollywood outsiders who moved on up to a deluxe McMansion in the Hollywood Hills. But it’s hard to sympathize with characters that have so much success, excess and few real setbacks in their Hollywood odyssey.
That’s why the only character to really root for is Johnny Drama, Vince’s older half-brother. Drama’s had a long career in Hollywood playing bit parts in movies and on television. His biggest success was the short-lived fantasy series Viking Quest where he uttered his famous catchphrase “victory!” The show’s best running joke is Drama’s long acting résumé. We learn over the course of the series that he’s played such diverse roles as “Uncle Jessie’s Tough Guy Nephew” on Full House to “Dead Body” on Law and Order: SVU. Now living in his younger half-brother’s shadow and off his dime, Drama is the only true window into the reality of Hollywood struggle. His recent casting in Ed Burns’s new TV series suggests a brighter future, but I doubt his success will last too long. He’s the show’s lovable loser and his lot in life is to be just on the outside looking-in.
Entourage’s third season, which returned last week for an 8 episode run, has offered a few more bumps to raise the dramatic stakes on Vince’s road to stardom. Part 1 of season 3 dealt with the aftermath of Vince’s Aquaman success, his being fired from the sequel and the struggle to land his dream project: Medellin: The Pablo Escobar Story. At mid-season break, Vince and his manager/best friend Eric decided to fire Ari Gold as Vince’s agent. The mid-season premiere finds Vince under new representation by the very attractive Amanda, but Ari is anxious to lure his former client back with the once thought-to-be unavailable dream project. Drama is set to star in the TV series Five Towns and Turtle is still being Turtle.
Entourage has been called the “male Sex and the City,” because of its similar depiction of four young friends living glamorous lives. This may be true, but Entourage is at its heart a Hollywood wish-fulfillment fantasy that reaffirms our faith in the “dream factory.” The Hollywood myth is an American tradition as important as the Old West and although it’s irresistible to not have a bit of schadenfreude every time a Hollywood starlet goes into rehab or former child-actor gets arrested for possession, such stories damage the myth. On Entourage, Hollywood’s just a never ending party with your best friends, no one has a drinking problem or an eating disorder, Bob Saget could be your wacky neighbor and the harshest drug ever used is marijuana. Even the bottom-feeders and wannabes drive nice cars and get invited to all the cool parties.
HBO’s series reaffirms our faith in Hollywood but more significantly redeems Hollywood in its own eyes. It’s a place where some people actually care and no one embodies this better than super agent Ari Gold. Ari is pompous and arrogant, but he’s good at his job and cares about his clients. If Joe Gillis had Ari for an agent, there’s no doubt he’d own a swimming pool instead of floating face down in one. For Ari, losing Vince as a client is like breaking-up with a girlfriend and it seems unlikely the two will be apart forever. Last Sunday’s new episode offered a crucial insight into the show’s idealized version of Hollywood. After sending his gay assistant Lloyd off as bait to lure a gay TV writer to sign with his agency, Ari has a change of heart and rescues the loyal assistant. He tells the lost client: “We may be whores at our agency, but we ain’t pimps.” Admitting to being a whore could only be a mark of pride and integrity in Hollywood, but Ari suggests there’s a line that even the most unscrupulous do not cross. For Hollywood, that’s a victory.