Grey’s Anatomy and Entourage, two shows of the moment, would seem to have little in common. One is a one-hour medical soap opera with some of the best ratings and most convoluted plot twists on TV. The other is a loosely plotted comedy with ratings that are good for cable but that would barely register at a broadcast network. Grey’s is seen as a “girl” show, while Entourage is seen as a “guy” show (though a cursory glance at Internet fan sites would show that both series readily pull in viewers from both genders). What’s interesting, though, is that these two seemingly disparate shows have surprisingly similar strengths and weaknesses—indeed, both are going through third seasons that are seen as considerably weaker than their predecessors. So why, exactly, are these deeply flawed shows two of the series of the moment?
It all comes back to wish fulfillment. Grey’s Anatomy has the tone of chick lit (to be fair to the show, at its best it’s significantly better than almost all chick lit), and its popularity stems from a similar setup—through various on-screen proxies, the women of America (and some of the men) get the chance to bed hop, meet surprisingly sensitive men (even the token jackass, Justin Chambers’ Alex Karev, has revealed himself to be a really nice guy underneath it all) and be the subject of unmitigated desire from those surprisingly sensitive men. Entourage, meanwhile, is more like a Maxim magazine article full of “yes, you can have sex with this woman” and “being rich is better” bravado. Through roughly similar proxies, male viewers (and presumably some women) get to hang out with their best high school pals, bed surprisingly willing hot girls and then suffer no ramifications (aside from the occasional arc with Mandy Moore or the like).
And, as escapism, both of these shows essentially work. Grey’s went through a period where it took itself a little too seriously (though I liked the weird metaphysical bullshit of a February sweeps arc where main character Meredith Grey—Ellen Pompeo—traveled through the afterlife, it didn’t fit in with the series’ M.O.), but it has mostly returned to the zesty blend of soap opera, sitcom and romantic drama that distinguished its first two seasons. Despite the show’s reluctance to treat its characters with any real weight (explicated further below), most of them are still interesting and the actors playing them tend to be better than the material (some of the supporting players, from Chandra Wilson’s Bailey to Karev, have a tendency to steal episodes, so appealing do they remain). What’s more, the soundtrack has actually gotten better in Season Three, branching out from the middle-of-the-road weepy folk rock that typified the first two seasons into rock, hip hop and country. Music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas has earned the title of most powerful woman in the music industry by taking performers like Snow Patrol and Mat Kearney from semi-obscurity to top 40 radio. Every episode is a jukebox.
Similarly, Entourage’s escapist heart remains intact. Like Grey’s went through a period where it took itself too seriously (central player Vincent Chase—Adrian Grenier—went through a phase where he wanted to be taken seriously as an artist), but the comedy remains strong even on episodes where not much happens. Fortunately, the central foursome is appealing as a unit (if not so much as separate characters), and Jeremy Piven’s Ari Gold remains one of the best reasons to turn on your TV (Piven can take an underwritten one-liner and turn it into the sort of thing you quote the next day to friends, only to realize it wasn’t that funny to begin with). The show also portrays male friendship in a real and compelling fashion (only FX’s Rescue Me can rival it in this regard, and Entourage’s sexism is less disquieting). Entourage fundamentally understands that guys can be serious about their business or their love lives, but when it comes time for a foot race or some other form of silly competition, they’ll revert to boyhood.
But wish fulfillment and escapism can only get you so far, even in such breezily unserious shows as Grey’s and Entourage. Both shows’ greatest flaws come from failing to take their characters seriously. On Grey’s, Izzie Stevens (Katherine Heigl) went through one of the most improbable love-at-first-sight storylines in television history with Denny (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), only to put his life in danger so he could get a heart transplant before someone else, ultimately resulting in Denny’s death. Rather than treat what was medical malpractice with any sort of emotional or moral seriousness (and therefore destroy the escapist chick lit feel of the show), the show blithely overlooked Izzie’s actions, arguing that she was a woman in the grips of a true love even she couldn’t understand (when just months before—weeks in the show’s timeline—she had been cavorting with Karev). Since this came right before the summer hiatus, the show might have gotten away with it if the incident had somehow been ignored entirely, or if Izzie had left the medical profession for all time (she still would have been the roommate of the main character, so she could have remained involved in the storylines Rhoda Morgenstern style). Instead, the writers, clearly casting about for any excuse to bring Izzie back into the hospital fold, improbably had Bailey claim that she was at fault because she was too distracted by her new baby to properly supervise Izzie. Wilson’s acting nearly sold this twist, but it was just too improbable to let slide.
Izzie has apparently become the show’s black hole, sucking the other characters into her wake and ruining their stories. Indeed, the fledgling marriage between George (T.R. Knight) and Callie (Sara Ramirez), a plot that was interesting in its decision to look at marriage as a spontaneous decision that led to two young people being in over their heads, has been ruined simply virtue of its vague proximity to Izzie, who has improbably fallen in love with George—a development the writers assure us they’ve been building to for a long time on their blog, despite the fact that Knight and Heigl have little chemistry and that there was little evidence for this outside of Izzie’s bizarre insistence on mocking Callie all the time. Though the writers did allow Izzie and George to treat their drunken sex with the regret that might be expected in life, they’ve also clearly cast their lot with Izzie, who has been shown as pining for a man she wouldn’t have become obsessed with earlier.
This is not to imply (all evidence to the contrary) that Izzie destroys all she touches. The relationship between Meredith and Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey as McDreamy, the man who launched a thousand cheesy nicknames) has turned into the most boring plotline on the show and yet one that tends to have a lot of time invested in it, simply because the two are the show’s main characters. Absent the love triangle that the two had with Derek’s ex-wife (Kate Walsh’s Addison, who’s off to her own spinoff, starting tonight), they’ve fallen into a long series of scenes where they either have petty arguments about boring things or do cute stuff together. The show seems to be building toward a breakup, which might be all right, just because the writers seem incapable of writing functional relationships. The give-and-take involved in any adult coupling doesn’t interest them nearly as much as soap operatic bed-hopping. Granted, the show was built on having equal parts sex and medicine, but it might be nice to examine one functional couple.
None of this might be as irritating if not for the aforementioned blog. All good fiction involves the push and pull between the writer’s God-like will over his universe and his own subconscious driving the characters in the universe to make their own demands. The Grey’s writers’ blog, though, reads as though all of the people involved in the show are completely nuts, bound to the whims of imaginary people. The Isaiah Washington/T.R. Knight/Patrick Dempsey feud that became the focus of so many tabloid headlines earlier this year couldn’t be dealt with in an effective manner simply because Washington’s character, Burke, wasn’t in a place where his character would leave the hospital. Because Burke couldn’t leave, Washington couldn’t be fired or suspended. All good shows have showrunners who balance a shrewd, business-like producer’s mind with an artistic writer’s mind. Because Grey’s is the biggest hit on TV not named American Idol, it can afford to completely indulge its own bizarre whimsies, and creator Shonda Rhimes leaves herself at the mercy of people who don’t exist.
No such blog exists for Entourage, but the show is also unwilling to treat its characters with any emotional or moral seriousness, and its central character is similarly uninteresting—a fact that has only become more apparent now that the show has essentially split into two shows, one focused on Vince and the other on Ari. Vince, indeed, is most of what’s wrong with Entourage. It’s not that Grenier’s a bad actor or that Vince is a singularly unpalatable character. Vince is just inactive in determining the course of his own life, and the show seems to congratulate him for it. This might be realistic (maybe all stars let their handlers determine every aspect their careers except the part where they show up and turn on the charm), and it might roughly mirror executive producer Mark Wahlberg’s life, but it doesn’t make for compelling television. Indeed, by showing how Vince’s entourage and agent make his blessed life possible, the show is reminiscent of the early years of The West Wing, when the show was still about how the White House staffers made the president look better. Eventually the series realized that if the staffers were to be believable, the president had to be compelling.
It doesn’t help that we’ve gotten no real proof that Vince is a good actor or even a particularly creative mind. We’ve seen a few quick glimpses of the movies he’s been in, and he certainly sounds like he wants to be considered a serious actor (and those pursuing him for their films seem to think he could be), but by completely ignoring the filmmaking process, Entourage makes us less inclined to care about the show’s central character, save for his ability to keep his three buddies afloat. The show’s examination of the Hollywood business landscape is surprisingly accurate and mines both drama and comedy from a soul-sucking landscape (usually through Ari). But absent a sense of how the product is actually made—as opposed to packaged—such details seem almost beside the point.
Maybe that’s part of the show’s grandest joke—maybe in the circles Vince runs in, filmmaking really is beside the point, and being a star (or signing a star) is more important. Indeed, the enigmatic nature of Vince’s talent and his own seeming disinterest in his career is funny, as is the idea that so many people would become invested in a cipher; in fact, these aspects are Entourage’s best argument for being subversive. Unfortunately, it’s not the sort of joke that you can build a whole series on, and the events of Season Three make such a theory harder to believe. Vince has flailed after hitting mega-stardom in Aquaman (of all things), expressing interest in a variety of projects but pissing off their casting directors by passive-aggressively refusing to take his agent’s calls and not budging on his salary request for Aquaman 2 (leading to him being removed from that project). The show’s depiction of the days following Aquaman’s release was funny (particularly the boys’ trek out to the Valley to watch the movie), but everything that has happened since suggests that Vince is ruining his own career and blaming everyone else (particularly Ari, who works harder than anyone on the show) for it. Maybe the audience’s sympathy skews toward Ari because he’s a more compelling character, but the writers seem to be siding with Vince, taking seriously his dreams of artistic freedom, and it’s difficult to get invested in the arc of his career because after three seasons, we have yet to see him act. We have no idea if he’s a hollow shell or another Robert De Niro, making the whole scenario hard to take.
In the second half of Season Thre, Entourage has mostly abandoned plot, choosing to focus on such pressing issues as whether Vince will get to go on a couple’s weekend with his manager, Eric (Kevin Connelly) and how Ari will cope with his jealousy of an old fraternity brother. Carla Gugino has come on board as Vince’s new agent and sort-of-romantic-interest, Amanda. But the professional love triangle of Amanda/Vince/Ari feels like a dull stall, since we all know Ari and Vince will get together again.
Fortunately, not all is lost for either of these shows. In any given episode, you can see how it might all come back together and return to the easy escapism of old. There’s room for simple fun on television, and these two shows have provided more than enough of it. But by trying to deepen their universes and their characters, both shows have shown they’re not willing to go all the way—to keep digging until they hit emotional and moral relevance. This might be disappointing to viewers who hoped that their loyalty to the shows would be rewarded, but on the other hand, it suggests that someday soon (perhaps in Season Four) we’ll be back having a little stupid fun again.
House Next Door contributor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark.