Back in junior high school I used to get up at precisely 9:55 a.m. every Saturday. I didn't set an alarm clock, my body just awoke on its own exactly five minutes before the start of Saved By The Bell and its lesser-known follow-up, California Dreams. My devotion to these shows is best described as anti-fandom; I was fascinated by how unbelievably crappy they were, and bewildered by their apparent popularity. It wasn't a matter of taste; these shows sunk beyond bad into flat-out incompetence. Was I the only person who noticed the bad dialogue, grade school production values, and awkward acting of these cynically assembled teen programs? (No, but I didn't know that at age 14.) I didn't want to crack the code; biologically, I needed to.
Alas, I never succeeded at getting to the bottom of Zack Morris' wily witchcraft. And now I'm stuck loyally following another show whose popularity I can't quite figure out: Entourage. If you haven't seen the popular HBO comedy, which kicked off the second part of its third season Sunday (HBO isn't TV, so it needn't conform to your logical TV season calendars), it's about a hunky actor named Vince Chase and his three mookish New York pals running amok in Hollywood and enjoying the spoils of celebrity. And that's about it. None of that dark side of fame stuff here. Whenever a plot seems to be veering toward something mildly dramatic, it takes a quick turn toward happy-go-lucky back-slapping. By the end of every episode, you're sure to see Vince and his pals in a hot tub, drinking expensive champagne and beaming at the camera, and basically being all "This fame and fortune thing rocks!"
Obviously Entourage isn't as undeniably awful as Saved By The Bell or the woefully underappreciated garage band sitcom California Dreams. It's a stylish, flashy, entertaining-enough show that at least looks as good as HBO's other original shows. And it's not difficult to understand why Entourage has an enthusiastic audience: It has a great premise capable of delivering savage satire or/and vicarious thrills. (Notice I said "capable.") My thoughts on the show were best articulated by Dana Stevens in Slate two years ago: "When I wrote that I was "baffled" by the show's success, what I should have said is: I'm baffled by its critical success. Critics from the New York Times' Virginia Heffernan (who finds in the show's dialogue "the delicious poison of a David Mamet play") to the San Francisco Chronicle's Tim Goodman ("[creator Doug] Ellin tells good stories, period") have anointed the show as television's sharpest satire."
Let's just get something obvious out of the way: Entourage isn't satire. Executive producer Mark Wahlberg is the smartest dumb-looking guy in Hollywood, but he has shared precious little of his insight on stardom with Ellin, whose creation, truly, is the first show about nothing. If drama is based on conflict, Entourage is based on neutralizing conflict into a discussion over which hot model to bang. Sunday's episode was typical: Vince's agent Ari (played by the grating Jeremy Piven, by default the show's most dynamic performer) tries to woo his client back after being fired last season (this season?) by offering up a script way cooler than the period drama his new agent is pushing. Meanwhile, Turtle goes over-budget planning Vince's birthday party until he decides to get corporate sponsorship from Victoria's Secret. That's it, that's the plot. Sure, some tension between Vince's former and current agents is hinted at, but it's basically all "This fame and fortune thing rocks!"
Which is fine. At this point I'm over the fact that Entourage doesn't aspire to be Sunset Boulevard or The Player . But the show is not all that great as escapism, either. It's not particularly funny. Or raunchy. Or outrageous. If this is going to be a show about dudes on the loose in Hollywood, shouldn't the characters be more over the top and eccentric? If this is the new Sex & The City, where are the sex scenes? I have probably seen every episode of Entourage, and I'm still waiting for it to be as good as it should be. It isn't smart enough, but it's not dumb enough, either. It's like the Dave Matthews Band of sitcoms: harmless, bland, and annoying because being harmless and bland seem to be what people like about it. But maybe I'm wrong. Can somebody help me break the Entourage code?