The Players

Living the life in a new HBO comedy about celebrity and friendship in the Hollywood Hills

We've come to expect extreme things from an HBO series: the misanthropic comedy of Curb Your Enthusiasm, the savage cruelty and intelligence of The Sopranos, the gritty profanity of Deadwood. So I was shocked by the new HBO comedy Entourage—by how unshocking it is. This is a satire of celebrity life, but one so gentle that you barely feel the bite, and so open-ended that you can see it as either a sly critique or an enjoyable romp through Hollywood decadence. Developed by Mark Wahlberg (who makes a cameo appearance) and his manager, Entourage avoids overtly ruffling industry feathers. Yet the clever dialogue and adroit ensemble cast somehow alchemize into an offbeat series that wipes the floor with this summer's other wan contenders like Summerland and North Shore.

Entourage hovers around the margins of celebrity life, capturing the backstage machinations and high life of a young movie star from Queens named Vincent Chase (Adrian Grenier). A charming rogue somewhere between Wahlberg and John Travolta circa Welcome Back, Kotter, Vince breezes through life in a grinning, semi-stoned haze. He is pretty but vacant, a vacuum around which the series revolves. The show's real focus is the Queens-bred posse that Vince has brought up with him, all of whom live in his Hollywood mansion. Turtle (Jerry Ferrara) is the piggish school pal who trails Vince around picking up leftover groupies (with come-on lines like "I'll show you where Vince eats breakfast"). Vince's half-brother, Johnny Drama (Kevin Dillon, Matt's brother), is a has-been actor clinging to Vince's coattails. Dillon plays Johnny as a lovable loser who cooks spirulina omelets and constantly offers advice gleaned from his brief moment of fame, "Before I got kicked off Melrose Place, the money ran dry and I had to sell my house."

Most crucially there's Eric (Kevin Connolly), Vince's best friend from the old neighborhood and now his de facto personal manager. The only male figure who even approximates maturity and sensitivity, Eric acts as a buffer between Vince and the industry—especially his sharkish agent, Ari (played in amusingly hyperbolic style by Jeremy Piven). Vince refuses to tax his carefree head, expecting Eric to read scripts on his behalf and even come up with funny stories for talk show appearances, as if he were a president's speechwriter. Eric serves as Vince's brain while the rest of the gang feeds on his fame like a giant, fun-loving succubus. They constantly egg him on to nab bigger houses, hotter chicks, and flashier cars, like the hideously large Rolls-Royce tank with a $320,000 price tag. "That costs more than the houses we grew up in!" Eric complains earnestly. "A Subaru costs more than the houses we grew up in!" jeer the other guys.

Thanks to the nonstop drip feed of entertainment gossip that is the E! network and Us Weekly, many of us feel we know the stars, down to such mundane details as which baby blankets they buy. But Entourage undercuts all that nonsense about celebs being just like us (albeit with better bods and eyebrows) by reminding us that being a star is an absurd and unnatural way of life. Celebrities move around town encircled by huge, lumbering posses, as if L.A. were an oversized, overpriced version of high school, where popular cliques rule the hallways. In one episode, Vince and his pals cross paths with a virginal Jessica Simpson–style singer and her all-female hangers-on—just two star gangs passing like ships in the night.

Entourage sometimes brings to mind Altman's great Hollywood takedown, The Player, except that these guys are playas. So much of the action is straight out of a lush hip-hop video; elaborate tracking shots capture the foursome striding through car showrooms, parties, and boxing matches, a hip-hop/r&b soundtrack always pulsing behind them. They ride around in their Hummers, weed-smoke clouds mingling with that new-car smell. The hip-hop world didn't pioneer the concept of the massive entourage (Elvis did pretty well on that score, as did actors like Douglas Fairbanks), but it added a new twist: Get rich fast, but be sure to bring your homeboys with you so's to keep it real. Entourage envisions Vince and his crew as boys from the (white) 'hood who've invaded the phony Hollywood scene, living it super-large and even breaking a few rules, as when Vince appears on Jimmy Kimmel's talk show and name-drops a stereo salesman in return for a free home-entertainment system.

I didn't really start to like Entourage—or get what it was shooting for—until I let go of the idea that it would decimate the entertainment industry, and instead let myself be entertained by this dysfunctional family of bachelors, bantering affectionately in tight scenes written (in the three episodes I viewed) by either Larry Charles (Seinfeld/Curb Your Enthusiasm) or Doug Ellin (Life With Bonnie). Vince's homeboys have nothing but free time on their hands, so they play golf from Vince's Hollywood Hills patio (scoring points based on which movie star's roof they hit) or drive around town trying to scam more free stuff. Mostly they rib each other, or kvetch; Johnny Drama complains to Turtle at one point, "You use all my products. I found my Kiehl's next to one of your beat-off mags!" Amid the hijinks and teasing, Eric is a plangent presence. Much as he wants to, he can never quite immerse himself in the others' mindless pursuit of pleasure. Only he understands just how much they all have to lose.

 
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