It’s not until the third episode that the creatives behind “Entourage” indicate they get it. Taking a dig at Hollywood requires a nuanced touch, a blend of the familiar with the surreal, or else you’re stuck with one long in-joke. At its worst, “Entourage” doesn’t even manage that: First two segs about these four guys — one’s a budding star — from Queens, N.Y., maneuvering their way through Hollywood feels like the fantasy of a guy from Queens, N.Y., imagining life in L.A. as a rap video.
Actually, “Entourage” is the player-level view of a Bostonian, rapper-turned-thesp Mark Wahlberg, who exec produces and used his own posse as the basis for the skein’s characters. What has been forgotten is what drives the best of HBO’s series: subtext. There’s nothing beneath the surface in these characters (a fact they actually take pride in), and only the strongest depiction — the crazed, single-minded agent played flawlessly by Jeremy Piven — will elicit passion from viewers.
The glimmer of hope for this eight-seg comedy, which is never laugh-inducingly funny, lies in the third episode’s dip into an actual Hollywood pool. The writing gets sharper, the seg has a self-contained arc, and the characters turn 3-D by developing purpose. Pilot and its follow-up are cliched and dull, the potty-mouth dialogue seemingly recycled 20 years ago from David Mamet’s trash.
The four main characters, living together in a Hollywood Hills mansion, are drawn simply and crudely. Thesp Vince (Adrian Grenier) has his first major film opening within a fortnight and, with no second film lined up, he chooses to hang around the house during the day and go to parties at night. He trusts all decisions to Eric (Kevin Connolly), who becomes his de facto manager. Turtle (Jerry Ferrara) is the group’s errand boy and professional hanger-on; Vince’s brother Johnny Drama (Kevin Dillon) has had bit parts in TV shows but will never crack the big time like his brother.
The four are inseparable, whether going to dinner, meetings, parties, etc. They talk about women and the who, what, where and when — never why — of their sexual conquests. Action at night is heavy on pickup scenes, though no actual or implied sex occurs on camera: The quartet appears to hook up with young women, and the camera takes us to the next day where the foursome is gathered for breakfast. (No hangovers, no stayovers.)
Grenier plays Vince as intentionally bland, as blank a canvas as, say, Keanu Reeves, whose athletic build and rugged looks will allow him to make a career in actioners. Connolly’s Eric, who has to do all of the thinking, comes off as the most intriguing member of the bunch, owing as much to the character as the performance. Kevin Dillon — that’s right, Matt’s lesser-known brother — was apparently born to play the lesser-known brother. Ferrara’s obsequious Turtle is one-note obnoxious.
That leaves Piven’s Ari to generate thunder in “Entourage.” While the Hollywood agent may be the easiest stereotype to pick at, Piven gives the character an intensity and a moral void that gets better with each episode. His character has a naked drive that doesn’t seem to be found anywhere east of the Staples Center or outside Wall Street. Piven rather quickly makes Ari the guy to watch.
HBO regular David Frankel (“Band of Brothers,” “Sex and the City,” “From Earth to the Moon”) makes sure there’s plenty of eye candy in the “Entourage” pilot, but the show never hits that middle ground between TV and cinema that the best of HBO’s series achieve.