There was a time when defending HBO’s bro-mantic comedy Entourage against the legions of haters felt like the winning end of a worthy debate. The show was pure escapism, set in the glittery enclaves of Hollywood, studded with cameos of legitimate A-list players, timely enough to feel culturally relevant. The dialogue was fast and fresh. It was a ribald Sunday nightcap.
That was then. Today, in the show’s seventh and penultimate season, Entourage is starting to bear more resemblance to its myriad spoofs on YouTube than to any of those early episodes. Creator Doug Ellin tells me he’s deliberately taking the show to a darker place, something he’s wanted to do since it began in 2004. “I figure it’s the seventh season,” he said in a phone call from his Los Angeles home. “We’ve really got to try to do something different and new.”
“People I care about seem to like our show,” Doug Ellin says. “The president.”
Indeed. Already this season, pretty boy movie star Vincent Chase (Adrian Grenier) has graduated from rowdy house parties and leggy starlets to tequila-and-Vicodin binges with his porn-star girlfriend (played by real-life porn star Sasha Grey). When we last saw him in Sunday’s episode, he was passed out, naked by the pool, a clichéd cautionary tale. Then there are the odd character arcs of his cohorts: the wince-inducing scene of his best friend and manager E (Kevin Connolly) awkwardly attempting anal sex with his fiancée (Emmanuelle Chriqui) and sidekick Turtle’s (Jerry Ferrara) episode-long quandary over his girlfriend’s hairless vagina. Even the celebrity cameos felt forced, with Jessica Simpson looking stiff while being confronted by dated jokes about John Mayer.
“ Entourage is over,” one fan posted on HBO’s site. “Worst season ever.”
Meanwhile, HBO’s announcement Saturday that its longest-running scripted show would end next summer—albeit followed by an Entourage movie—was met with a relative shrug. It seems most critics have outgrown their crush, calling the comedy “ stagnant,” noting its “ whiff of self-parody,” peppering even the decent reviews with qualifiers. (The show’s Metacritic rating has dropped to 61 from 2006’s high of 73 out of 100.)
And then there was the Emmy snub. Voters bypassed Entourage for all but its sound mixing this year, after three consecutive Best Comedy nods from 2006 to 2009 and three straight wins for co-star Jeremy Piven as the series’ most compelling character, the delightfully duplicitous talent agent Ari Gold.
Ellin isn’t exactly blasé about these developments. He doesn’t want to be defensive, but he can’t help reminding me of the Peabody Award the show won last year, which honors excellence in electronic media. (Recognition that, ahem, warranted its own bit of snark.) He’s disappointed about losing out at the Emmys, though the performance he singles out is one of its guest stars. (He says overlooking Matt Damon’s turn as a Jason Bourne-style charity fundraiser last season “was a crime.”) But “the hate” from TV critics doesn’t surprise Ellin. “Every year, people call me and tell me how harsh the critics are,” he says.
Besides, there’s always Barack Obama’s love. “People I care about seem to like our show,” Ellin says. “The president.”
Ellin does grow testy at the mere hint that Entourage might have jumped the shark—that dreaded metaphor for a long-running TV series in its death throes. “If you’re a fan of the show, we haven’t jumped any sharks,” he says. “That’s stupid! You can’t jump a shark if you’re doing something that actually happens. And everything on the show has either happened to friends of mine or it’s happened to me. I am really confident that this is our best season.”
Entourage debuted in 2004 as a sweet-natured version of Mark Wahlberg’s tumultuous early years in Hollywood, trailed by his rowdy gang of Boston-area buddies. Producers substituted Wahlberg’s violent youth, his drug addictions, and years in prison for straight-up wish-fulfillment fantasy, and Entourage was quickly deemed Sex and the City for guys. It was a show that inspired real watercooler moments for Hollywood insiders.
But Ellin had a vision for the series’ last days, even then.
“Ever since the beginning, I had the hope that if we got far enough along that I’d get to take them to a darker place,” says Ellin. The question is: Will the audience come along?
Gina Piccalo spent a decade at the Los Angeles Times covering Hollywood. She's now a contributing writer for Los Angeles Magazine and her work has appeared in Elle, More and Emmy. She can be found at ginapiccalo.com.