The accused: Entourage, “Adios Amigos”
The crime: Representing all that made Entourage pretty bad in its later seasons
Television’s failures are supposed to be obvious. From the overhyped non-starters that flop from the very beginning (hello, FlashForward, Lone Star) to the much-discussed clumsy conclusions of series we were convinced had it all planned out (nice to see you again, Battlestar Galactica), the medium’s big busts are right there in front of us. Whether because of low Nielsen ratings, terrible critical and fan response or something else entirely, the reaction to one episode often defines a series’ long-term legacy. But while we are often left wondering what it all means for the medium and for the industry when a series like Lone Star stumbles out of the gate or a series like Battlestar Galactica presents a controversial ending, those discourses tend to focus on disastrous beginnings and ill-conceived endings. But what about those mishaps that are not so obvious, the catastrophes that happen somewhere in the middle? How much impact, both positive and negative, can one bad episode have on an entire series? How do long-running series continue onward in the aftermath of an episodic failure? Is it possible that individual, episodic failures of television’s most respected series tell us more than the failings of a much-hyped about pilot or series finale? And how do we really define “failure” anyway?
These are just a few of the questions that I hope to answer with TV Surveillance’s new bi-weekly feature, #TVFail. In each entry, I will be taking a look at an individual episode of television that is considered a disappointment in some way. Maybe it was panned by critics and audiences, maybe it was lowly rated or maybe it was initially neither but has retroactively lost its more positive reputation. No matter the reason, this is a place where I will talk about the quiet failures of some of television’s best series. Here, I will talk about how and why these individual episodes came to represent “failure” and also discuss whether or not those definitions still apply today. The hope is that this feature will weave textual analysis and contextual and intertextual discourse together to create a compelling space for the discussion of televisual failure.
After month than a month away, #TVFail is back! If you missed it, I posted the entire schedule for #TVFail through the end of 2011 the other day. I’m really excited to be back in the saddle with this one and hopefully there are some appealing posts coming down the pike. We start that process today with what I think will be a really interesting, if not somewhat controversial piece.
Tackling Entourage feels contradictory to the initial, general principles of #TVFail. This feature started as a way to explore so-called “bad” episodes of supposedly “great” series and in some respects, it will always come back to that. But in my time away from the feature, I thought a lot about what I wanted it to be and how it could expand, develop and change moving forward. There’s nothing fundamentally different coming down the pike, but if you take a look at the 2011 schedule and this post’s focus on Entourage, you might be questioning whether or not some of those series are actually great — or even good.
This is perhaps no more true than with Entourage. The HBO series just began its final season last Sunday and per usual, it was met with sighs and jokes about Jeremy Piven’s hairpiece. Chuck Klosterman and Molly Lambert debated the series’ merits on Grantland the other day and Lambert succinctly provided the long-running knock on Entourage:
No matter what went wrong, nothing bad or depressing ever actually happened to them. Every episode ended with high fives and snowboarding. That got boring and also felt like the show was taking place on another planet.
I cannot tell you how much I laughed at the “high fives and snowboarding” line. That was honestly one of my favorite sentences of 2011. Nevertheless, Lambert’s assessment of Entourage is absolutely true in 2011. For what feels like forever, Entourage has been (rightfully) mocked by the critical elite for its inability to create real stakes, establish substantial tension or develop likable characters. The celebrity cameos are no longer charming, the performances are staggeringly awful — even Jeremy Piven’s work as gotten staid, although I’m not entirely sure that’s his fault — and it just feels like Entourage no longer “matters” in the way that it once did. The annoying bro pledging Sigma Chi in your Human Sexuality still loves Entourage. This is all we really need to know about its place among the cultural tastemakers. This video is the most representative of how pop culture now views the series (complete with Adam Pally, Bobby Moynihan and Ben Schwartz appearances!)
But I want to let you folks in on a dirty little secret: Entourage used to be a pretty good television series. Was it great? Absolutely not. But there was a period, specifically during its second and third seasons, that Entourage happened to be at least as interested in stakes, narrative and humor as it was celebrity cameos and naked women. It wasn’t overly funny or overly interesting narratively, but it felt like the series’ creative staff led by Doug Ellin was actually trying. Season two’s Aquaman plot was relatively well-done, but season three is where Entourage brought it all together for a consistent run.
The series wasn’t entirely invested in exploring the aftermath of a massive success like the record-breaking Aquaman, but it did do a good job of exploring how people get side-tracked with new ideas, projects and concerns once that success comes along. By the end of the mid-season finale, “Sorry, Ari,” it actually made a lot of sense as to why Vince would fire Ari and shockingly, there was some pathos behind those final moments. This being a escapist comedy, there was no way that Ari wasn’t going to get Vince back, but Entourage did an admirable job of suggesting why at least a temporary reprieve was necessary. And hey, that finale did not end with snowboarding.
But just eight episodes later, Entourage had downshifted into the borderline-awful series its been for the last four-plus seasons. It was hard to pick just one episode during the problematic stretch that ended season three’s second half so I just figured sticking with the finale was the best bet. After “Sorry, Ari” suggested that Entourage could build some tension, both with plot and between characters, the true season finale presented evidence to the contrary. Although this effort does not end with snowboarding, it ends with an equivalent scene: the guys standing on a balcony, popping the bubbly in celebration of getting Medellin off the ground and yelling about the possibility — nay, probability — of having sex with Colombian women. Vince and his crew may be out of their luxurious house and teetering on the verge of financial ruin, but they just got a movie financed, picked out a director and decided on a shoot budget within six hours.
Perhaps “Adios Amigos” just looks bad in the shadow of “Sorry, Ari,” admittedly one of the series’ best individual episodes. But the episode is also reflective of the kind of rushed, things-are-good-no-wait-they-are-bad-shit-no-wait-they-are-good-again storytelling that the series really grabbed hold of. Like I said a few paragraphs ago, it was always apparent that Ari was going to get back in Vince’s good graces. Because of that, I can’t really fault some of the early episodes of season 3B, especially because Carla Gugino was really fun as Amanda and it was at least moderately compelling watching Ari squirm and jockey for something that actually mattered to him personally, not just professionally.
Yet by the time Adam Goldberg’s Nick Rubenstein gotten involved and it seemed like the series and the characters had really no true scarring from the Vince-Ari breakup, Entourage‘s problems became more apparent. Rubenstein’s trust fund issues are so dumb and by the time he arrives in “Amigos” with a $25 million offer, he’s nothing more than a walking plot device used to bring the season to a close on a much happier note. Of course, “Amigos” pulls a classic Entourage by having Rubenstein fight with Eric and Vince’s chosen director for their dream project, Billy Walsh. It appears for approximately 11 seconds that Rubenstein won’t sign off on Walsh’s budgetary requests or his terrible attitude. Thankfully, those 11 seconds go by pretty quickly. Everything about this episode’s handling of the Medellin project is just so matter-of-fact. There’s never a sense that the film won’t get off the ground because why the hell else would Rubenstein even be around or why would Walsh be back? Characters on Entourage aren’t really characters, they’re just basic types moved around for whatever it is the plot desires.
I know what you might be thinking. Yeah, Entourage was always like this. The struggles with Medellin aren’t entirely dissimilar from the struggles with Aquaman. However, I’d offer a few caveats that I think help support my position: First, the good seasons (S2 and S3A) knew how to extend the drama of the episodic narrative structure powered by constant reversals over multiple episodes. The casting and director selection process of Aquaman took multiple season two episodes, as did the initial shooting sequences we saw. The Aquaman 2/Medellin contract negotiations with Warner Bros. similarly took up much of the third season. I’ll admit that the second half of season three’s more directed focus on Medellin took up multiple episodes, but uncertainty and stakes weren’t really there.
This leads me to my second point: Those better seasons/storylines were more personal for Vince, Eric and Ari. They all had something real to gain or lose with Aquaman and with the drama over who would be Vince’s agent and what he’d do next. With Medellin, we were just constantly told that this was Vince’s dream project without really knowing why or seeing that manifested on-screen. It’s much easier to feel invested in a story about Vince nearly destroying a James Cameron film because of his heartbreak over Mandy Moore than it is over the financial jockeying of a father-son duo who may or may not finance a movie we don’t really know a lot about. Entourage might have never truly had stakes, but the plot of S3B and “Adios Amigos” really, really lacks them.
Furthermore, this episode reflects the series’ growing inability to make its lead character remotely likable. For all intents and purposes, Eric is the lead character of the series and in the first few seasons, his power struggles with Ari and his personal relationship with Vince were enough to keep the machine moving forward. But good lord is the Eric-Sloan relationship terrible and I found myself laughing out loud at how little the pairing has developed and matured when I watched this episode right after my viewing of the season eight premiere.
All the way back in “Adios Amigos,” Eric and Sloan are working out the kinks of moving in together. Within the episode it’s a fairly terrible plot that basically only exists to great the falsest sense of drama there can be — OH MY GOD WILL SLOAN FORGIVE E FOR CANCELING ONE DINNER — and in retrospect, it’s hilarious to see how bad these two are together. Eric reacts like a stubborn, insufferable, humorless twit in “Amigos” and that’s basically how he’s still reacting four-ish seasons later in the aftermath of yet another separation. I could — and will — talk about the problems with unresolved sexual tension couples, but E and Sloan are one of the worst examples of that trope because the series’ creative team is deluded into thinking the audience gives a crap. I’m fairly certain that Entourage is going to wait until the final episode to show whether or not those two will get together and that alone tells me that Ellin and his staff have been on the wrong track for many seasons now. This on-again, off-again relationship is reflective of Entourage‘s problems as a whole. They waffle back and forth, never reaching a true conclusion and only presenting the possibility of real tension. Even if we could get invested in a relationship between two mostly unlikable people, the series breaks them up so often that none of it has meaning. Just like all the twists and turns in the business side of the story.
It feels as if the writing staff saw what was working in those earlier seasons, but decided to ramp it up to a level that isn’t really healthy to the quality of the story. It’s one thing for Vince’s issues with Mandy Moore or Ari to play out and build over multiple episodes. It’s another thing to have countless pointless twists and turns only seconds from one another within just a single episode. There is no question that this kind of storytelling was always part of the Entourage narrative model, but it sure seems like the series traded in some (albeit minor) depth for an extreme dedication to a formula that was never particularly useful to begin with. After this stretch of episodes and this finale in particular, it feels like Entourage was never really the same. Unfortunately I know that because I have seen every single episode of Entourage (That’s neither here nor there).
As the series comes to an end this summer, I won’t be sad. But I also won’t be happy either. At one point, Entourage seemed kind of good and it appeared to have some inclination to tell a somewhat compelling story amid an attractive backdrop. It was always escapist lifestyle porn, but in those early years there were moments were the series justified its existence a bit. In the seasons following “Adios Amigos,” Entourage stopped justifying its existence. Eric and Sloan’s relationship became a more dominant element, the Medellin project ate away at multiple seasons with no real consequences or lasting impact on Vince’s psyche or career. Ari’s badgering was less endearing. The celebrity cameos felt less purposeful in any regard. And even though it never actually happened in seasons four through seven, it does feel like every episode ended with snowboarding.
The one interesting thing the series did was give Vince a coke habit in season seven, but it looks as though season eight isn’t entirely interested in exploring the consequences of his addiction and rehab stint. Two minutes after Vince walks out of rehab in the premiere, Ari and Eric are already pushing a new project on him. It’s all about the next project. And then it will be about the director. And then the shooting location. And then Eric will have an existential crisis at an airport. Ultimately though, it doesn’t matter. Vince won’t die or go to jail for real. He’s too dumb and shallow of a character for us to feel sorry for, so there’s no real arc. His personal relationship with Ari doesn’t mean what it meant in “Sorry, Ari” since Mr. Gold has often been separated from the rest of the group in his own (better) storylines and his relationship with Eric doesn’t matter because Eric sucks and he is a vapid, blank slate of a human being. Entourage used to have some stakes. That is no longer the case.