'Entourage': Still, and Very Much, a Player

Adrian Grenier, left, as a rising Hollywood star
Adrian Grenier, left, as a rising Hollywood star "aided" by his buds on the HBO series. (By Claudette Barius)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 8, 2007

An angry writer could take the material that goes into each episode of HBO's "Entourage" and make of it a bitter, scathing assault on Hollywood and the rancid values it pumps into America. But "Entourage" is no assault; it's a party, a spree, a picnic on the beach. It's a seductive celebration of excess and indulgence, not a guilty pleasure but a gilt-edged one.

Returning tonight at 10 with the first of eight new episodes (the "second part of its third season," HBO confusingly says), "Entourage" is at least as good as ever and maybe better, even though its two adversarial heroes, Vince the movie star and Ari the agent, have been separated. For at least the first five episodes, they are monarchs of parallel domains, each stubbornly trying not to go crawling back to the other.

Adrian Grenier is affably cute and cool as the actor, but it's Jeremy Piven's fire-breathing performance as Ari that makes the show, that lifts it above the ordinary and rams it into overdrive, the way nitrous oxide supercharged the hot rods in "The Fast and the Furious," two adjectives that fit Ari perfectly.

Piven's accomplishment is taking this essentially coldblooded monster and making us love him.

He's heedlessly ruthless but has to be. When, in the new episodes, he starts showing signs of compassion and concern for others, it scares him silly, because he knows it takes a tiger to survive in the jungle and he cannot be a pussycat. Series creator Doug Ellin, who wrote or co-wrote most of the new episodes, has found a way for Ari to grow and evolve without compromising his attractive explosiveness.

We wait for him to blow his top as eagerly as TV audiences of another age looked forward to Jackie Gleason's Ralph Kramden, in "The Honeymooners," to burst into fury, anger or pain. Piven is as crucial to "Entourage" as Simon Cowell is to "American Idol," but he's a much more electrifying presence.

As regular viewers remember from the first half of the third season -- or whatever it was -- Vince fired Ari as his agent and, as the story picks up, is now allied with the aggressively attractive (and attractively aggressive) Carla Gugino as Amanda, an agent who talks tough even to her own clients. The story line involving Gugino and Grenier is dramatically satisfying and moderately surprising. Vince is attracted to her and vice versa, but what we know, and wait for them to find out, is that they were not meant for each other -- at least not the way Vince and Ari were.

It's a peculiar platonic love affair currently in Splitsville. Ari thinks it's Vince's fault; Vince thinks it's Ari's. They're both right.

Debi Mazar is featured prominently in the opening credits, but doesn't show up in the episodes made available for preview. The rest of the gang's here, however, including Jerry Ferrara as the servile Turtle (who maxes out credit cards planning Vince's birthday party tonight), Kevin Connolly as Vince's manager, Eric, and Kevin Dillon going way over the top as Drama, too much of a buffoon and too clearly intended as Mr. Comic Relief. Dillon's scenes are lopsided because he plays Drama so broadly and transparently.

Rex Lee has lovably hilarious moments as Ari's gay boy Friday, Lloyd, whom Ari, in one of many weak moments, uses as bait to lure a fat and bald homosexual writer to the agency (Ari's act of contrition is a truly golden moment in the history of the series). Perry Reeves as Ari's wise wife has a higher profile than in previous seasons and makes the character deep and distinctive. Such glittery guest stars as the ageless Beverly D'Angelo, obnoxious Pauly Shore and flinty Nora Dunn show up as well.

Vince and his three close pals are "the boys from Queens," living the good life with the zest and abandon that come with knowing it may all end tomorrow. They're deplorable, unpardonable, shameful -- and why can't you and I be just like them? Since Vince is between films, supposedly reading scripts as he considers his next project, the boys have virtually nothing to do; they fill time with trips to the racetrack, throwing that extravagant birthday party (ingeniously financed), visiting a park for dogs and their owners, and dining -- make that eating -- at L.A.'s wettest watering holes.

There's an innocent irony, then, to Vince's declaration that "we need a nice vacation." Vacation? From what? But off they go to Mexico, leaving behind Ari and Lloyd, who dance for joy, literally, over the signing of a new client in the agency's stylishly sterile offices.

More than once someone will say, in a cliche that was surely popularized in Los Angeles, "It's all good." So it seems (except for Dillon) with "Entourage," down to the smallest details of la dolce vita in Beverly Hills, Bel Air and Malibu. The boys make the most of superficial pleasure, turning frivolous luxuries into necessities of life and trapping those of us who can only sit and watch somewhere between shameless envy and churlish jealousy. If it's not all good, it's because some of it is great.

Entourage (30 minutes) returns tonight at 10 on HBO.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company