A few weeks ago, Mark Teixeira, Gold Glove first baseman for the New York Yankees, appeared on Hollywood Sunset, a behind-the-scenes farewell tribute to the HBO series Entourage. "I've played nine years in the big leagues, but I've never been on Entourage," he said about his upcoming cameo on the show's eighth and final season. "This will be the coolest thing I've ever done." Little boys dream of growing up and winning the World Series. And, apparently, World Series winners dream of hanging out with Johnny Drama on Entourage.
In the time since its premiere in 2004, Entourage, that show about those guys who buy cars, have sex, and get yelled at by Jeremy Piven, has become as much of a cultural institution as Sex and the City. And like the glamorous Manhattan of that show, the glittering, leisure-class brotopia of Entourage carries endless appeal, even for fans like Teixeira, who aren't exactly punching the clock five days a week. Outside of a shared foundational belief in the power of friendship, sexual freedom, and brunch, however, the two shows couldn't be more different. Sex and the City was ultimately concerned with empowerment, a fantasy of a certain kind of liberation, but it was also a how-to guide. Audiences both envied and identified with Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte, and Miranda, and they were led to believe that, with a vibrator and some self-confidence, the characters' lifestyles were reproducible.
Entourage, on the other hand, is a how-to guide for a totally impossible lifestyle, an aspirational fantasy with a perpetually receding horizon. The busty, gold-rush vision of Hollywood that the series has presented over eight seasons is a post-pubescent dream world of sex, drugs, and celebrity where pudgy, unemployed men named Turtle (Jerry Ferrara) get handjobs from Jamie Lynn-Sigler at 30,000 feet and seemingly no amount of ineptitude or sexual harassment can get you fired from your job. Loyalty to friends is the sole ethic on Entourage, and it's constantly paying preposterous dividends to the shallow quartet of schlubs at its center.
Despite all this, Entourage carries an illusory aura of realism. Based on the early life of executive producer Mark Wahlberg, and teeming with celebrities playing themselves (this season includes delightful appearances by Andrew Dice-Clay and celebrity chef Bobby Flay), the show compulsively reminds the audience that it's a thinly fictionalized version of real life. At the heart of this roman-à-clef aesthetic is the easy and convincing relationship between the four leads. Better than almost any other television series on the air, Entourage practically pulsates with authentic chemistry. Every piece of hook-up advice, every casual homophobic slur has the ring of reality to it. You can almost smell the Axe body spray. That chemistry is the show's meal ticket and the reason it has stayed around so long. Like M*A*S*H or The West Wing before it, there's a comforting familiarity to the show's wolfpack.
But that comfort level is also a liability. Without a compelling storyline since the fourth or fifth season, Entourage feels like it's stuck around this long solely out of habit. Having long ago tired of obligatory gestures toward satire, and having strained audience patience with Vince's (Adrian Grenier) frankly boring descent into Lohanesque excess last season, show-runner Doug Ellin has switched full throttle back into wish-fulfillment mode for the grand finale. By the first new episode, the consequences of Vince's bender last season have been resolved off screen, Eric (Kevin Connolly) and Scott (Scott Caan, popping veins out of his forehead like his old man) have set up a wildly successful new management firm after tangling with their old boss (George Segel), and Ari (Piven, relishing every second he has left with this Falstaffian monster of a character) is painfully separated from his wife only to discover a shining opportunity to reunite with his long lost love. Shit happens on Entourage, but it's never more than a couple of episodes before somebody cleans it up.
The cast and crew interviewed throughout Hollywood Sunset repeatedly emphasize that Entourage is a show about friendship, loyalty, and the bonds of love. They're not wrong about this: The show was writing its dissertation on bromance back when Paul Rudd was still playing Phoebe's husband on Friends. But for all the purity of its ode to homosociality, Entourage is also about a deep love for Hollywood stardom and all the compromise, hedonism, and even misogyny that comes with it. (Perrey Reeves's Mrs. Ari may sometimes win the moral high ground from her husband, but she'll never win a first name.) The show has always been happy to caricature that culture, but it's only ever a gentle ribbing, like campers putting on a skit about their counselors at the end of the summer.
Some of last season's morose attention to addiction has crept into the new episodes, signaling, possibly, that our band of brothers is on the road to disillusionment or even disaster. But the occasional insertion of a bitter pill in with all the uppers, more often than not, comes off as disingenuous. The addiction to celebrity is one habit that a stint in a palatial rehab facility can't kick, and it's been a long time since anything about the fates of our heroes has seemed even remotely precarious. While it's easy to imagine a cheeky end to the series that would bring Vince and company back home to New York humbled, it's also difficult to picture the show entirely disavowing Hollywood. And so, with this final season of Entourage, we will either witness the downfall or the apotheosis of Vincent Chase and his merry men. But no matter how the chips fall, we can rest assured that Hollywood will always be around, ready to make the dreams of scrappy New York kids like Vinnie Chase and Mark Teixeira come true.