While we’re here—that is, before we take a moment to appreciate the snap with which Entourage (HBO, Sundays at 10 p.m. ET) retails fantasies of backstage Hollywood—let us cast a backward glance at Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (NBC). Though Aaron Sorkin’s gassy gloss on his own medium isn’t officially dead yet—just wait a few weeks—I come to bury it.
Many viewers could not help but notice that, after a whiz-bang pilot, Studio 60 descended, smugly, into embarrassing speechifying about “issues”; that it regularly left many fine actors stranded far out long and flimsy limbs; that Sarah Paulson, in the role of a comic genius, wasn’t all that funny. And yet it managed to be a fabulous TV event. Not in the sense of the series finale of M*A*S*H, or Hugh Grant receiving absolution from Leno, of course, but as a medium-sized monster, its own bicoastal sideshow.
This state of affairs came to be partly because of Studio 60’s big budget, large hype, and grand pedigree—and partly because it was a superb series to argue with and about. Its core audience might well have been people who actively disliked it. Disappointed Sorkin loyalists kept tuning in, praying it would improve, finding hope in its moments of brilliance, taking solace in Matthew Perry’s double takes. Professional observers of the tube debated its pros and cons with a heat generally reserved for The Wire or Buffy the Vampire Slayer—objects of unrestrained ardor. Comedy writers sniped at its contrivances. In the press, Sorkin carped at the press. Surely schadenfreude drew some viewers, along with other peculiar feelings felt when grand ambitions go unfulfilled and great expectations unmet. Rarely has a low-rated, kinda-OK show inspired such sentiment and publicity. Thanks, gang. That was fun.
Entourage is one of those shows in which the fun is actually inherent. Studio 60, among its missteps, presented the entertainment industry as a place of high moral purpose—a point of view contrary to the very premise of the HBO hit, which features a rising actor named Vince (Adrian Grenier) and his posse as they make moves, chase women, and match egos. When American showbiz regards itself in a mocking mirror, it often recognizes venality of a distinctly adult sort, zeroing in on bottom lines and sophisticated lies. Such is the view shared by satires including Robert Altman’s The Player and Jake Kasdan’s new The TV Set. But Entourage is less a satire of Hollywood than its burlesque (crossed, let’s say, with an extended riff on male vanity), and it takes a different tack. They say, and will always keep on saying, that Hollywood is high school with money. Brilliantly, Entourage offers a whole lot of high school. It’s hormonal and antsy, and its takes on status would be right at home in the lunchroom. The show hit a peak last Sunday when Ari Gold (Jeremy Piven), Vince’s erstwhile agent and the true star of the show, experienced a … well, what to call it? His outburst combined elements of a tantrum, a sermon, a drill sergeant’s bark, and an instant of revelation. In any case, it was a crucial moment for Ari and a bravura one for Piven.
Ari had been more distraught than a spurned lover since Vince fired him, and his depression was affecting his work. He passed up the chance to sign a superstar writer because, in an unprecedented triumph of morality, he refused to let the guy take sexual advantage of Lloyd, his loyal assistant. Then he found himself unable to fire Rob, an underperforming underling, merely because he had just emerged from eye surgery and moaned that his wife had just left him. Ari worried that he had lost his ruthlessness and so consulted with his marriage counselor, interrupting her at her golf club: “I want my edge back. I need my anger and I need it now!” And then, erupting with rage at his shrink, he had his anger back, and he was at a crossroads. Ari looked into his soul or the absence thereof, made a choice, and went back to office.
The scene—Ari firing Rob as disrespectfully as possible in a conference room filled with his colleagues—was bookended nicely. Charging out the office elevator, sweaty with mania, eyes open for nothing but his prey, he crashed into the cart of a mailroom guy and rebounded with a triumphant gesture of good health and a snap of the finger. And strutting out of the conference room after the dismissal, radiant with attitude, he did not break a stride when snatching a candy bar from the hand of plumpish employee. He said it matter-of-factly: “Skip it, Jenny.” If you’ve seen Shark Week on the Discovery Channel, then you know that they’re beautiful animals.