Good news and bad news for British fans of Entourage, the US comedy drama about the fictional Hollywood movie star Vince Chase and his homeboys. The good news is that the seventh and penultimate season begins tonight, with cameos from Christina Aguilera and Eminem in coming weeks; the bad news for those without a satellite dish screwed to their back wall is that, like the rest of HBO's content, it's disappearing behind Rupert Murdoch's paywall. Yup, Entourage is another feather in the cap of Sky Atlantic.
And it's not as if it's one of those American shows that got shoddily treated by its previous British broadcaster, ITV2 airing it on a regular slot and only four days after its American transmission. But then perhaps the channel didn't shout loudly enough about their baby because Entourage has been the most consistently entertaining import of the last decade. It's not as ambitious or as all-consuming as Mad Men or The Wire, but it's faster, funnier and, for a slice of feel-good entertainment, it's astonishingly insightful about its subject matter: the US entertainment business.
No less an authority than the revered film writer David Thomson has called it "as brilliant on Hollywood as anything since Sunset Boulevard", while the industry itself has provided Entourage with its highest accolade – a steady stream of recurring guest stars and telling cameos. Larry David, Scarlett Johansson, James Cameron, Peter Jackson, Bono, Martin Scorsese, Gus Van Sant, Dennis Hopper and Sydney Pollack are just a handful of the actors, producers and directors who have played themselves, quite often in an unflattering light. Only The Simpsons has a more extensive celebrity cast list.
Not bad for a concept that could be scribbled on the back of an envelope, something like: "An aspiring movie star takes his childhood buddies from Queens to Hollywood, where they proceed to live the dream." Mark Wahlberg is the executive producer, and the show was based on the lighter aspects (ie not the criminal ones) of Wahlberg's experiences evolving from rapper Marky Mark to hot young movie star. In fact, Wahlberg and his entourage were rather more street-hardened than their fictionalised versions: rising star Vincent Chase (played by Adrian Grenier), his best friend and manager, Eric "E" Murphy (Kevin Connolly), pot-smoking hanger-on and dogsbody "Turtle" (Jerry Ferrara) and Vincent's older brother, Johnny "Drama" Chase, a C-list actor who has struggled in his sibling's shadow. In a serendipitous piece of casting, Drama is played by Kevin Dillon, a C-list actor who, before Entourage, had struggled in his brother Matt Dillon's shadow.
Vince's life is heavily based on Wahlberg's own blessed life. This is the star who reportedly has a golf clause written into his contract stipulating shooting schedules that allow him to play every other day. And Vince's entourage is based on the actor's own circle, most of whom still surround him today. The model for E is Wahlberg's long-term friend Eric Weinstein, a former roadie-turned-actor and co-producer on Entourage. Drama is based on Johnny "Drama" Alves, a cousin originally hired by Donnie Wahlberg to keep his younger brother out of trouble, while Turtle was based on Donnie "Donkey" Carroll, who carried Wahlberg's bags for more than 14 years while trying to launch a career as a rap musician.
The show's creator and chief writer, Doug Ellin, has said that Entourage is less about Hollywood and more about male friendship, and certainly most guys will recognise the merciless joshing but essentially affectionate camaraderie of Vince, E, Drama and Turtle ("now you're illiterate in two languages," Turtle tells Drama as the latter mangles his Hebrew chat-up line on a Jewish waitress). Not for nothing has Entourage been dubbed "a male Sex and City", although that does a disservice to a show that is funnier and more truthful than the cod-philosophising of Carrie Bradshaw.
The boys have a genuinely funny, admittedly bordering-on-the-frat-house, repartee, but the spark of real comic genius is provided by the one character than even people who have never seen Entourage have heard of: Vince's hilariously despicable agent Ari Gold, played by Jeremy Piven, who has won three consecutive Emmy awards in the role. Ari's rants and putdowns (see "The Wit and Wisdom of Ari Gold", above) sparks up the show in the same way Sue Sylvester puts the zip into Glee.
Ari's machinations – trying and failing in a coup d'etat against his boss, the reptilian Terrance McQuewick (Malcolm McDowell), and forever putting his family on hold for the sake of his clients – have struck a chord with the real Hollywood talent agents, who in turn provide Doug Ellin with more storylines. "Agents always seem to have 50 great stories apiece, and people do love to tell us their stories," he has said. "It's been embraced by the town – I don't hear a lot of people complaining, 'hey, it's taken from us'."
Ari is famously modelled on Mark Wahlberg's agent, Ari Emanuel, brother of President Obama's former White House Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel (it's said that Entourage is Obama's favourite TV show), and this isn't the first time that Ari Emanuel has been parodied in a TV show. He was also the model for Larry Sanders' agent, Stevie Grant, in The Larry Sanders Show, Garry Shandling's brilliant Nineties entertainment industry satire, of which Entourage is a direct descendant. Nobody in Entourage has the genius of Larry's monstrous ego, but it does have that same razor-sharp sense of authenticity. Or as Doug Ellin has put it: "We always ask, 'Is it real?' before we ask 'Is it funny?'" Both TV shows make such Hollywood-on-Hollywood movies as Robert Altman's The Player and Christopher Guest's For Your Consideration seem flabby and yet over-excitable in comparison.
For those who haven't yet caught sight of Entourage – and you may need to buy box-sets of earlier seasons since a spokeswoman for Sky Atlantic informs me that, rather oddly, they have no plans to repeat them – each series covers the lifespan of one highly plausible-sounding project. These include a James Cameron underwater superhero blockbuster, "Aquaman", a Scarface-style biopic of Pablo Escobar called "Medellin" (Vince's pet project – a straight-to-DVD dud) and Martin Scorsese's version of The Great Gatsby – and Entourage captures the rocky road to production as well as the see-sawing vicissitudes of a star's worth (series creator Doug Ellin himself was once an actor and the Next Big Thing).
Entourage can seem like one big Lynx advert in which a bunch of average-looking (Vince aside), not very enlightened guys stroll god-like through an eternal poolside of pliant, bikini-clad models. Vince invariably wakes up with a different beauty every morning, while Drama can fix up the hapless Turtle with a girl, saying, "She's my sure thing... she can't spell 'no'." One critic has dubbed the show "The Glee of male exploitation", arguing that it is as comfortably sexist as its characters.
Even given that this is probably what it is like to be a young male movie star, there's an element of truth in the charge, and unlike Mad Men, where the male chauvinists are having their certainties demolished and reconstructed brick by painful brick, there is comparatively little emotional development going on. There doesn't seem to be any grand scheme to the show – as there is with Mad Men. Indeed, some former fans have rebelled, arguing that, after the first three or four series, Entourage is just going round in circles. The nit-picking has begun – how blandly passive Vince is, how Drama has become boring as the go-to-guy for stupid, and so on.
Actually, Kevin Dillon is great as Drama and I think that Vince should be something of a blandly handsome cipher ("I don't make the calls, I make the movies," he tells his manager, E). Season seven sees him becoming addicted to risk-taking, as if the writers have sensed the growing inertia, but, hey, there are only one-and-a half seasons remaining (season eight will only contain six episodes), and a promised feature film. Make the most of Entourage while you can – Hollywood is unlikely to be so clearly and entertainingly detailed again any time soon.
'Entourage' is on tonight at 10.30pm on Sky Atlantic
Special agent: the wit and wisdom of Ari Gold
"I don't wanna talk to anybody, was I not clear? Nobody. I don't care if Justin Bieber calls and wants me to negotiate the rights to his virginity, I don't wanna talk to him."
"E, don't take your shirt off, I don't want anyone going blind off your translucent boy chest."
"You know what they feed people on an indie set, Vinne? Nothing! They don't give you a trailer. They tell you to go sit on an apple box. Ever try to bang an extra on an apple box?"
"We are gonna get drunk with Russell Crowe and we're gonna head-butt some goddamn kangaroos."
"Well, tell the school, that when they schedule a parent-teacher conference for 2:30 on a weekday, that's just their way of saying we don't care about daddy."
"You will come out stronger than ever, like Lance Armstrong, but with two balls"
"You fire a guy, you create a rival. You fire a woman, you create a housewife."
"People, staff meeting has been cancelled. You all have one goal today: to get Vincent Chase's brother, Johnny Chase, a job. Any job! I don't care if it's a porn shoot in which he is being gang raped by a gaggle of silverbacked apes. If there are cameras rolling, everyone wins."