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‘Entourage’ and Me: A Love Story in Four Acts?

In the wake of “Entourage” producer Doug Ellin’s recent interview with the Hollywood Reporter — in which he refers to his “very contentious relationship with (Variety TV critic) Brian Lowry” and admits to having become “a little psychotically obsessed” with the paper, I thought it might actually be illustrative to recap my critical history with the series.

As Ellin states, I wasn’t particularly kind to “Entourage” when the show made its debut, thinking the inch-deep premise was a missed opportunity. (My former colleague Phil Gallo actually coined a line that I really Entourage09_04 liked, saying the show’s formula was “No sleepovers, no hangovers,” meaning there were no real complications as these guys sauntered through life.)

Clearly irritated by the lack of adulation from an industry paper about his industry-centric show, Ellin wrote an episode where the Johnny Drama character (played by Kevin Dillon) bursts into the Variety office and tells the TV critic to screw off. As I recall, the script described “Brian Lowry” as a squirrelly little man in his 40s, though Ellin subsequently changed the name to “Paul Schneider,” after a friend of his.

They shot the sequence in the old Variety office, and I remember thinking (and writing) at the time that fake Variety was younger, more ethnically diverse, better dressed, and much, much better looking than real Variety. I liked fake Variety, though I’m not sure I’d have gotten much work done there.

My view of the show, meanwhile, evolved as the series got better, richer, more intricate. There were suddenly serialized arcs to the season — such as Vince doing the “Aquaman” movie — that raised the stakes beyond just who he was going to sleep with that week. In my third season review, I noted, “Our little ‘Entourage’ has grown up.” Last September, I was evemore effusive, saying the show had found its “A” game as the Vince character (Adrian Grenier) dealt with the fallout from his disastrous star turn in “Medellin.” Moreover, some of the art-imitates-life flourishes surrounding the series — like the Variety ad touting the record-breaking boxoffice performance by the fictional James Cameron-directed “Aquaman” — have been sheer genius.

To me, though, the most interesting aspect of all this is that Ellin himself — during interviews, as well as a panel that I moderated at the TV academy — acknowledged that he felt his grasp of the show had improved considerably after the initial year or two. “The first season I had really no idea what I was doing,” he told the crowd at a Paley Center event, adding that the more elaborate arcs only came together as he gained a better handle on the show.

Which, if you think about it, sounds a whole lot like what I was saying.

Now, I point this out not to pat myself on the back, but to demonstrate that producers often lack (and perhaps shouldn’t be expected to have) much perspective about their own work. This isn’t the first time I’ve had producers who were pissed about a negative review say later — with the benefit of hindsight — that they weren’t satisfied with the show themselves when the review ran. They just didn’t like seeing it in print, especially in what they consider a home-town paper.

Some of the responses, by the way, can be quite funny, and the web has given producers a way to jab back — frequently through private emails, but occasionally with public rejoinders. Take “Sons of Anarchy” creator Kurt Sutter, who used his blog to critique the critics, saying that my appraisal of his leading man sounded like I was working out “‘pudgy yearbook committee nerd hates the good-looking quarterback’ shit through a review.” That would be “pudgy high school newspaper critic,” actually, but let’s not split hairs.

In other words, it’s not particularly unusual for creative talent or executives to take criticism personally and become a little “psychotically obsessed.” Ellin, for example, refers to a “contentious relationship,” when in fact there’s really no relationship to speak of, other than saying hello at a few HBO parties. For the record, he’s always seemed like a perfectly nice guy. I just happened not to like his show much initially, and then started to enjoy it more. The same dynamic — never personal — would apply to any number of executives who have at various times accused me of vendettas, only to be surprised (pleasantly, I assume) when I raved about one of their projects — responding, as any critic should, to the specific merits of the material, not those responsible for it. Bad reviews are fun to write, but watch enough TV and trust me, you’re rooting for programs to be good, not bad.

So where does this “relationship” stand? After an advanced viewing of this season’s first two episodes starting with Sunday’s debut, I was disappointed with the latest direction of “Entourage,” which doesn’t seem to possess the heft that the show has delivered in recent years to augment its always impeccable inside-Hollywood touches. Still, I’ll continue watching — and not just because you can find Ellin pictured with Variety’s Peter Bart on Cynthia Littleton’s blog — since the show goes down pretty easy even when it’s not at its best.

So in a way, the arc here has been as follows: Show and TV critic don’t get along; show bashes critic; critic falls for show; show loses critic again.

If you’ve seen enough romantic comedies, it’s pretty clear that this would be heading toward a big mushy reunion. Let’s just hope the rest of the season brings about that happy ending.

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