Monday, November 27, 2006

"Lets hug it out, bitch."

The HBO symbol is something of a mark of quality before a television show. If the last decade or so truly has been a Golden age for American TV drama, as some commentators have claimed, then HBO has been the chief driving force behind such a high standard, forcing the American networks to raise their own games to compete with the consistent brilliance of much of HBOs output.

The Wire is probably the greatest television drama ever made. Deadwood and The Sopranos aren't that far off it. Band of Brothers is an amazing journey through the soldiers experience of WW2, as epic and brilliant as just about any War film I can think of. Six Feet Under, particularly in its incredible first two seasons, redefined and deconstructed the soap opera in a uniquely penetrating and hilarious fashion. Rome, too complex and deliberately paced for many, is a vivid and fascinating recreation of the Roman Empire as debauched political playground. Sex & the City became a phenomenon because it was so well written, cast and designed. Curb Your Enthusiasm shows that Americans can do the comedy of discomfort just as well as the British, if not better. Even the least celebrated of HBO's big shows - Carnivale, Big Love and Oz - are all obviously quality offerings, each exceptional in its own way. The ultimate tribute to HBO is that the classiest and most intelligent of it rivals shows - The West Wing, say, or Arrested Development - feel like HBO shows.

Of all HBOs shows, Entourage - alongside Sex & the City - is seemingly the most shallow, the most superficial. HBO originally even seemed to pitch the show as a slightly younger, male version of Sex & the City. It is, after all, about four young men, their friendship and their lives in Los Angeles. Only, one of these young men is an up-and-coming Hollywood actor and the other three are his manager, fixer and elder brother. While following each of their dalliances with a series of nubile beach babes and starlets, the show also reflects upon the nature of the film and fame businesses and consistently satirises LA culture. But, like Sex & the City did for the publishing, fashion and art worlds of New York City, Entourage is clever enough to leaven its satire of the Film Industry with a sort of visual worship - LA always looks amazing in Entourage. It is shot to make the lifestyle of the boys seem as attractive as possible, and so they live in a world of impossible women in bikinis, constant blue skies, Masaratis and massive plasma screen TV's, of art deco mansions, flashbulb-strobed Hollywood premieres and beach-house parties.

Its comedy is also very much based and grounded in character. The five principles - the fifth being Jeremy Piven as super-agent Ari Gold - are attractive, amusing characters and the viewer only grows more attached to them as the seasons progress. Entourage, while not the funniest show on television at the moment, certainly makes me laugh the most, partly out of the level of affection I feel for its characters. The depth of the friendship between the four young men from Queens, fish out of water in LA and loving it, gives the soapier plotlines a little weight. While it can be labelled one-note and slightly solipsistic in its determined focus on the narrow world of Hollywood, the bond between these characters is really the soul of the show, and all of the actors are good enough to make it believable, affecting and funny.

Another vital part of the humour for the movie-fan are the Hollywood injokes and the constant guest stars, most of whom play themselves. Mark Wahlberg is an executive producer and the show is inspired to some extent by his life and career, and in the first episode the fictional crew pass Wahlberg and his own posse as they move through the grounds of a studio. Many of the stars satirise themselves - from Gary Busey pretensiously describing the inspiration for his art at a gallery to James Woods throwing a temper tantrum - while others show up, as do many of the women in the series, as eye-candy. But Entourage is classy even in this department. When it does eye-candy it goes for the hottest available : the likes of Jessica Alba and Scarlett Johansson. In the second season James Cameron plays himself as he prepares to direct Vince - our principle pretty boy moviestar - in an adaptation of Aquaman, co-starring Mandy Moore, who plays herself even as she and Vince flirt with the possibility of a serious relationship. For anybody who knows the character of Aquaman, the material about his status, costume and powers are pure fanboy gold. Perhaps the biggest injoke is the presence of Kevin Dillon, brother of Matt, as Vince's older brother Drama, a has-been TV actor.

But the true glory of Entourage is Jeremy Piven. He gets the majority of the best lines and the best catchphrase - the title of this entry. His craven, utterly cynical, conniving and Machiavellian behaviour is always contrasted with his relatively stable home-life with a strong wife and two children. Even when sex with his wife is interrupted by a business call which he answers while kneeling up in bed sporting a viagra erection through his boxers.

Its basically a boys show, is its main drawback, if that is even a drawback. It mainly concerns four young men living the fantasy lives of millions of other young men as they pursue beautiful women in Hollywood, drive expensive cars, go to exclusive clubs, wear designer clothes, play golf and computer games and socialise with movie stars. Pure wish-fulfillment, in other words. But within that remit, its funny, clever and beautifully acted and crafted. Everything from the locations to the choice of background music feels just right and fun. Yeah, its fun, not a charge that can be levelled at too many HBO shows.

Entourage further cemented its standing with me with its choice of guest stars in Season 3. None other than Domenick Lombardozzi, Herc from The Wire, appears as an old schoolfriend from Queens who Vince employs as a minder in the first flush of post-Aquaman success. It all ends semi-disastrously, as many things do in the Entourage world. Of course hes brilliant. Of course its funny.

But really, its the regularity of offhand exchanges like this one that make me love Entourage so much. Eric is Vince's best friend and manager, the most intelligent and reflective of the foursome, while Turtle is the gofer, the fixer, called a "fat horny little turd" by Vince's female publicist. He is not above using his proximity to Vince in order to lure women, in fact its his chief method of meeting them.
Eric : Would you ever get laid if it wasn't for Vince, thats the question.
Turtle : Do I give a fuck, thats the answer.

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