How to re-watch “Entourage”

On the bad faith of hate-watching and the critical perils of the post-taste consensus

Published July 22, 2017 2:00PM (EDT)

         (Warner Bros. Entertainment)
(Warner Bros. Entertainment)

If one is expeditious, one can condense the very obnoxious, way-overlong opening credits of “Entourage” down to about 16 seconds. After the telltale HBO static intro stamp, and the fuzzy fade-in of Dave Navarro’s guitar, hold down fast-forward on your remote control, blur past the scenes of the show’s gaggle of bromantic buddies — E, Drama, Turtle and the star around which they all orbit, Vinny Chase — cruising the Sunset Strip, drinking in billboards emblazoned with their own names. After about a 12 count, release just in time to hear Perry Farrell wailing “OH YEAH! OH YEAH!” as the Jane’s Addiction theme fades out and the boys get out of their convertible and bleed into the night, beneath that superimposed authorial imprimatur, typeset in all lowercase as if in some show of mock-humility, “created by doug ellin.”

With enough repetition, this fast-forwarding becomes reflexive, un-self-conscious, almost autonomic. The action executes itself extemporaneously, as a matter of habit.  It’s like tying one’s shoes or blinking or digesting. It’s something one just sort of does, without thinking too much about it, remote dangling in one hand, neck of that Sunday’s second “day beer” in the other, in slovenly repose across one's sofa, which is practically matted with dog hair, from one’s own dog — a tatty, negative-image bas-relief of “Entourage’s” glossy centerfold spread of male aspiration. 

This brain-dead, automated bit of credit-jumping can handily shave about a minute off each episode of “Entourage.” And this is important. Because watching “Entourage” is all about saving time, about cropping precious seconds. Watching “Entourage,” circa 2017, years after its finale and the superfluous feature film that followed, is not a thing one does for the pleasure of doing it. It’s something one does in order to have done it and, maybe even more pointedly, to have it done with. It’s an eight-season-long “MTV Cribs” episode suffused with wealth, celebrity and god knows how many Budweiser bottles clinked that is entered if only so one can emerge, harder and robust, like some conquering hero who has triumphantly stamped across its sprawling duchy of bro-douchedom. “Entourage” is the ultimate hate-watch. Or so I thought.

* * *

Like Nickelback or anchovies on pizza, “Entourage” is a thing you’re supposed to hate, reflexively and pre-theoretically. In short: it’s the story — though perhaps “story” is the wrong word, as it presumes a narrative trajectory, whereas “Entourage” is structured more like a static, shimmering daydream of SpikeTV wish-fulfillment — of duskily handsome Hollywood super-hunk Vincent “Vinny” Chase (Adrian Grenier), a charming Queens, New York, regular neighborhood guy (calls his mom “ma,” has opinions about pizza, etc.) happy to let his ugly half-brother (Dillon) and childhood best friends (Ferrara, Connolly) ride his extended coattails. “Entourage” has often drawn comparisons to “Sex and the City,” another HBO comedy that indulged glamorous “lifestyle porn” and was known for its frank discussions about sex and friendship. (Both shows also inspired lots of quizzes and online tests drawing viewers into association with the characters: Are you a Carrie or a Vince? A Samantha or a Turtle? Etc.)

The key difference, perhaps, is that “Sex and the City” served a quasi-progressive agenda. However trite or obnoxious the characters, women had rarely been depicted with such candor and so, we’re told, the show is important. “Entourage” brooks no delusions of importance. The culture has long been flooded with images of smirking male decadence and entitlement. Where “Sex and the City” could be viewed as a corrective to precisely this culture of masculinist entitlement, “Entourage” can only be viewed as a corrective to “Sex and the City,” the televisual equivalent of an upper-body-burly pick-up artist interrupting a woman mid-sentence to say, “Well, actually, men are allowed to have fun, too.”

Plot-wise, “Entourage” is defined by its two-steps-forward-one-step-back storytelling (see also: HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” which is basically “Entourage” for guys fluent in C++) that sees minor hiccups resolved almost immediately, the low-key dramatic conflicts in place purely to bind its bros closer together. As I wrote when reviewing “Entourage's" improbable big-screen spinoff movie in 2015, “The lavish chauvinist reverie of icy cold Bud Crowns, gyrating full-frontal nudity and impromptu Pharrell concerts is never ruptured as our four pals roll along their totally frictionless storylines. Not even for one second is it plausible that their trifling personal predicaments won’t resolve themselves, as if by the magic of friendship and faithful stick-to-itiveness.” Or as Connolly’s E puts it one episode, summing up the show-writers’ bible, “It’ll work out. It always does.”

Such lifeless dramatization and grating characterization — it is pretty much impossible to conceive, even ontologically, of a show that would use the word “bro” more than “Entourage” — has cemented “Entourage’s” place in the firmament as an object of cultural scorn. When actor Martin Landau passed away recently, and online obits mentioned his appearances on “Entourage” (in which he played flustered, terminally out-of-touch old Hollywood exec Bob Ryan for a handful of episodes) many balked, as if a screen legend’s legacy was being tarnished by mere association with the show.

Thing is: Landau is really good on “Entourage.” As are Malcolm McDowell, Beverly D’Angelo, William Fichtner, Maury Chaykin, Gary Cole, Bob Saget (playing himself) and especially Jeremy Piven, playing high-powered super agent and howling anthropomorphization of hypertension Ari Gold. The further the show ventures from the black holes of charm and personality that constitute its ostensible dramatic core, the better it is.

Streaming TV shows, I think, instills a type of televisual Stockholm Syndrome in the viewer. The thinking goes, “Well, I’ve already wasted three hours on this trash; might as well waste another 27.” Working through the series over the past few weeks, my mind started opening a bit, like a real-time expanding brain meme. “Maybe this show isn’t so bad,” I found myself thinking. “Some of the performances are actually pretty good.” Before long it was, “Hmm . . . maybe it’s not just aspirational Hollywood bro-porn, but a comment on precisely that; a deep satire of Hollywood decadence, like Altman’s ‘The Player’ for a generation raised on ‘FHM’ and Monster Energy syrups instead of ‘Playboy’ and Johnny Blue.'”

Finally, egged on by a particularly persuasive online fan theory, I reached a final, fittingly insane, galactic brain conclusion: that “Entourage” was all a long-con prank by its producers to render its central foursome loathsome and unlikable, ruining any shot of a lucrative post-"Entourage" career in the process. The show was like a social experiment from a sci-fi story, testing the hypothesis, “Can we turn a show about the fickle, vain machinations of Hollywood into a grinding machine that punishes that fickleness and vanity?” The answer, as it happens, was yes.

Now, do I really believe that the producers behind “Entourage” were using Vinny, Turtle and the boys as stumbling test-gerbils in some shimmering premium cable gauntlet designed to destroy their careers? No. Well, probably not. But it is certainly fun to believe, just as it’s more fun to believe that “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” is all a paranoid death-fantasy unfolding. Such a belief doesn’t just expand the nuances of the show, it creates those nuances. It introduces a subtext that replaces the text entirely. And so suddenly I wasn’t just watching — or hate-watching, or moaning in the general direction of — “Entourage.” I was authoring it. I was the architect of its meaning.

* * *

This is what hate-watching is, as a cultural practice: a form of authorship. Hate-watching is a framework for justifying — and even facilitating — poor taste. It’s by no means a new phenomenon. But it’s becoming increasingly popular. In a recent piece for the BBC, Jennifer Keishin Armstrong claimed that hate-watching has become even more common, encouraged by the insta-reacts of social media. “Despite the embarrassment of rich, beautiful storytelling on TV,” she writes, “many of us indulge in exactly this sort of time-wasting habit: hate-watching has reached new heights. Fed by almost endless options for shows to watch, bolstered by the snark contest that social media has become, viewers now regularly revel in finding plot holes and analysing awfulness just as much as they delight in quality programming.”

New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum described the conflicting feelings at play when she watched NBC’s “Smash” as far back as 2012. “I realize my vehemence is slightly suspect,” Nussbaum writes. “I mean, why would I go out of my way to watch a show that makes me so mad?” Think even further back, to the (somewhat apocryphal) tradition of chucking rotten tomatoes at stage performers: an act that requires foresight to a) purchase fruit; b) let that fruit rot; and, most importantly, c) know that you’re not going to enjoy the performance going into it. To answer Nussbaum’s question, we go out of our way to watch (or read, or listen to) things that make us mad precisely because they make us mad. We gravitate to shows like “Smash” or “Entourage” or “The Newsroom” willingly, with rotten tomatoes in hand.

With hate-watching, this tomato-hurling impulse often takes a particular form. The fawning celebrity lifestyle porn of “Entourage” offers a perfect example. It shares it vast panorama of indulgence with many other definitive hate-watches: “Sex and the City,” “The Bachelorette,” “Gossip Girl,” “The O.C.” and other programs depicting the astonishingly easy existences of the super-wealthy and otherwise upwardly mobile.

There is a leveling effect at play here. By making fun of the lifestyles of the rich and famous, whether real or fictional (though I suppose the fictionally rich and famous characters of “Entourage” are played by factually rich and sort-of-famous actors), cultural capital comes to replace traditional wealth. The noxious mores of the upper-crust 1 percent are checked by eye rolls and snarky tweets (there is a certain echo of this in the quote-tweeting of Donald Trump, and the whole gawking, wide-eyed response to the Trump administration, which itself offers what is perhaps the ultimate hate-watch). The savvy practice of watching something you hate — or watching something because you hate it — functions as a cultural intervention. But as interventions go, it’s a pretty facile one, which is about as effective as the $45 Che Guevara t-shirt from Hot Topic.

In a culture that prizes the middlebrow, that takes pride in elevating the modest virtues of any premium cable drama or the most recent iteration of the children’s cartoon hero Spider-Man, even poor taste becomes a performance. Websites regularly round up the nastiest zingers from reviews of Michael Bay movies (reviews that appear to have zero net effect on his films’ box office); countless podcasts dedicate themselves bad movies, or re-capping bland TV shows, or trying to convince people to listen to Phish. In this new post-taste climate, where we’re constantly subjected to takes about why we should tolerate Céline Dion or (even worse) nu metal, the most egregious sin is not feigning a broad catholicism of preference, or (even worse) not having a take at all. Actually cleaving things into categories or hierarchies might expose one to accusations of snobbery. Philistinism is fine, so long as it’s enlightened. But a generalized, uncomplicated, totally vacuous enthusiasm is even better.

In such a climate, reclaiming once-loathed cultural artifacts and personas makes perfect sense. You can practically hear the steam whistling out of the ears of the cultural gatekeepers as we justify badness and mass appeal with snarky tweets and glib bad faith: Limp Bizkit actually rules. Céline Dion: slaaaay kween. George W. Bush is good now. Liking something that “everyone” (a broadly defined, largely phantasmic concept) is supposed to hate feels radical — a staking out of new, defiant terrain. Soon enough the landscape will shift, and the haters standing outside the critical consensus will appear as bitter onlookers, noses pressed against the polished glass of the Think Piece Factory, watching the grind and churn of content with covetous envy, like fat kids fogging up a candy shop window.

Which is why, reader, when someone asks if me I like the TV show “Entourage,” I will stomach my gurgling disdain for its lesser, more gallingly objectionable aspects, lodge my tongue deep in my cheek and respond, in a defiant, knowingly obnoxious Perry Farrell echo, “Oh yeah.”

By John Semley

John Semley lives and works in Toronto. He is a books columnist at the Globe & Mail newspaper and the author of "This Is A Book About The Kids In The Hall" (ECW Press).

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