'Entourage,' Giving HBO Summer Fare A First-Class Escort

(By Randy Tepper)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 11, 2006

There may not be enough water coolers in the world to host discussions of HBO's best shows. The broadcast networks are starting to catch up, increasingly presenting programs that dominate the office chitchat. Even so, "The Sopranos" -- which as of last Sunday's mercurial installment has gone into yet another infernal hiatus on HBO -- easily remains the medium's all-time chatter champ: diced, discussed and dissected as no other drama series of its time.

A "Sopranos"-size hit can set off a ripple effect that helps carry a network's evening. With the Soprano saga having gone back into orbit until early next year -- and HBO declining to reveal when the final eight episodes will air -- the pay-cable channel needs another series strong enough to carry the rest of Sunday night with it.

Obviously, HBO thinks it has that in "Entourage," a smart and disarming lark about a sweet-natured young movie star and the three pals who try to keep him humble when he gets too lofty and tell him that he's hot stuff should he become insecure or depressed.

As the show's hero gets sterling support from underlings, and in turn uses his clout to clear their way to the promised land, so it is hoped that the 12 new episodes of "Entourage" will lead the way to a victorious summer for HBO's mix of the old -- "Deadwood," David Milch's raunchy whirligig of a western (returning tonight for its last full season of weekly episodes) -- and the new: "Lucky Louie," a working-class sitcom whose collar isn't the only thing blue about it; and "Dane Cook's Tourgasm," a reality romp about four young comics touring North America in a wackily wayward bus.

During the first two seasons of "Entourage," its central character -- an actor named Vince -- lobbied and campaigned for the lead role in "Aquaman," a James Cameron picture about a superhero of the same name. Tonight, as the third season begins, that movie is about to open, and both industry scuttlebutt and word on the street is good. Even so, Vince (played engagingly by Adrian Grenier) knows better than to get cockily overconfident, despite the many temptations that accompany career leaps in Hollywood; he already has to be planning a face-saving spin campaign should the costly ship sink.

His friends, who've gallantly offered support in the forms of woman-hunting, communal carousing, gamboling, gambling and just plain partying, know that it isn't over till it's over and not even then; in fact, it hasn't really begun till it's begun. The entourage includes top-billed Kevin Connolly as the manager, Eric, the level-headed brains of the group; and amiable hangers-on Jerry Ferrara as the burly Turtle and Kevin Dillon as Vince's self-deluded brother Johnny Drama. Most pivotal of all -- pivotal partly because he is perpetually twirling himself into the tautest of twisters -- is Vince's agent Ari, the ruthless scavenger who's a snarling shark one moment and a paternal porpoise the next.

Ari is played with masterfully modulated desperation, ferocity and bravado by Jeremy Piven -- without whom there simply would be no show. Piven is not the central character, but he is the Rolls-Royce engine that keeps "Entourage" heading down the highway. Bumblingly robbed of an Emmy last year, Piven is back and as deserving as ever for the latest season of "Entourage," refining a characterization of awesome complexity and elusiveness -- a man who is never in the rifle's sights long enough to be a bona fide target, even though there's an infinite number of candidates who'd love to pull the trigger.

In the season's first three episodes, viewers are likely to find it harder than ever to dismiss Ari as a mere deadly menace, since he's in exile from the big plush talent agency he'd called his home away from home and is having a harder time of it -- learning to cope on, curse of curses, a smaller expense account.

Naturally, as the "Aquaman" premiere approaches, there is the manageable crisis or two. Actor James Woods (as himself) has fewer tickets than he'd requested, and industry savants estimate the movie needs to gross $100 million its first weekend (vs. the mere $95 million originally estimated), and so on. But then, even as the red carpet is being unfurled, comes news from the North: a calamity so profound that it can only be called an act of God (except that, in this environment, even God might sue), something too awful to have been included on Ari's list of potential and arguably avoidable catastrophic mind-blowers.

A new character named Dom will be complicating the scenario as the weeks wear on. An alumnus of the state's Department of Corrections (although he appears still to be fundamentally incorrect), Dom likes to walk around Ari's house naked and commit such social faux pas as borrowing another man's deodorant -- the roll-on kind! Dom rubs everyone the wrong way, with the possible exception of the very vocal young woman whose shrieks of "oh yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah" fill the house during an assignation that threatens to register on the Richter scale.

"Entourage" returns with feathers fully unfurled, zooming and soaring across the Sunday-night sky and elevating escapism to dizzy new altitudes and basically untroubled new attitudes. The cast and creators have pulled off a neat and tantalizing trick: They make you yearn to be there with Vince and his boyish brigade, romping through decadence but never wallowing in it -- Lost Boys in Ever-Ever Land, enjoying it all while it lasts and subconsciously aware that, like life itself, it could vanish in a poof without so much as half-a-moment's notice.

'Lucky Louie'

Elsewhere in its newly renovated Sunday-night lineup, HBO unveils "Lucky Louie," a blue-collar sitcom that might better be termed a ring-around-the-collar sitcom -- yet another attempt to breathe new life into a genre that is forever being declared as dead as the atrophied parrot in the famous Monty Python sketch.

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