The opening episodes of “Entourage’s” new season highlight how far the show has come: Having stumbled around through year one, the series gradually began grasping the power of story arcs, following its fictional star, Vincent Chase, as he climbed a fairy-tale staircase of (mostly) ups through the movie business. Yet the current year — given Vince’s maddening nonchalance in the past — promises to be more intriguing, as he seeks to redeem himself after a disastrous foray into indie film. Although characteristically frothy, this could be the storyline that those sporadically frustrated by the show have waited for.
To briefly recap, Vince (Adrian Grenier) and bosom pal Eric (Kevin Connolly) gambled everything on Vince producing and starring in “Medellin,” the blood-soaked story of a drug kingpin. The screening at Cannes, however, flopped, threatening not just Vince’s career but the show’s most durable attribute, their lifelong friendship.
The new campaign thus finds Vince licking his wounds — attended by the by-now obligatory set of hotties — on a Mexican beach (actually Hawaii), while both Eric and Vince’s agent Ari (Jeremy Piven, in what continues to be the role of a lifetime) plot his rebirth.
What makes the year take off, though (and consider this a small spoiler), is that Vince’s setback has finally jolted him out of his carefree attitude. Spurred by Eric, Ari and his own humiliation, he’s finally chosen to become an active participant in his career. In the premiere penned by showrunner Doug Ellin, he’s awakened as if out of a slumber, and pressed by Ari to embrace stardom, which the agent clearly distinguishes from acting.
Of course, what endears “Entourage” most to its insider constituencies on the coasts relies on its knowing references to Hollywood, and there’s again plenty of that on display. Highlights (and occasional lowlights) include a producer’s description of agents (“They’re all pricks”), the insane quirks of Vince’s exposed-nerve actor-brother Johnny Drama (Kevin Dillon), and cameos by the likes of Fox’s Tom Rothman, who proves more adept at playing himself than is NBC Entertainment’s Ben Silverman or series producer Mark Wahlberg.
There’s an unintended wrinkle, meanwhile, to an appearance by critic Richard Roeper, whose pan of Vince’s movie prompts Ari to proclaim, “No one mention Richard Roeper again!” Given that Roeper has split from his syndicated TV film-reviewing gig since the episode was shot, that line might hit a bit too close to home.
“Entourage’s” inordinate popularity around Hollywood yields obvious dividends to HBO — attracting stars and execs eager to demonstrate what good sports they are by playing warped versions of themselves.
The show’s polished exterior, however, has seldom scratched the surface hard enough to find anything deeper underneath. Vince’s career odyssey back from “Medellin” could provide just that — the season-long hook to make a show already on Hollywood’s A-list match that with an actual A-game.