When Christian Lander’s blog Stuff White People Like became a viral sensation a decade ago, he distilled “The Golden Age of Television” thusly: “For white people to like a TV show it helps if it is: critically acclaimed, low-rated, [and] shown on premium cable.” His assessment crossed my mind as I scrolled through the 2021 Emmy nominations. Amid a list of prestige series such as The Handmaid’s Tale and HBO’s controversially cancelled CRT-phantasmagoria Lovecraft Country, the only shows able to best Tucker and Hannity’s ratings with the exception of long-in-the-tooth weepie This is Us were living-room adaptations of Star Wars and comic books.
This superherofication of television has led critics to declare that the Golden Age is over. While TV’s quality is on the decline, the culprit is less the small screen's forays into blockbuster spectacle and empty reboots than an inundation of intended water-cooler shows so safe, insular, and increasingly made by diversity handbook, few care enough to binge them beyond television critics and those aspiring to be industry insiders (there’s a reason Amazon, Hulu, and Netflix remain reticent to publicly share viewership data). In such a climate, it would be impossible for a new show like Entourage to exist much less win three consecutive Emmys for a character as fueled by offense as Jeremy Piven’s superagent Ari Gold. Such might explain why Victory: The Podcast hosted by the series’s creator Doug Ellin and cast members Kevin Dillon and Kevin Connolly, which features insider commentary on each episode, has amassed nearly as many downloads as most of its Emmy successors have weekly viewers over the last year.
From 2004 to its 2011 finale, Entourage remained a staple of HBO’s destination programming, averaging around 2.6 million weekly viewers for its entire run—nearly three times the audience of the rest of the network’s concurrent slate with the exception of Game of Thrones and True Blood. Based on Mark Wahlberg’s early days in Hollywood, the show follows movie star Vincent Chase (Adrian Grenier), his D-list actor brother (Dillon), his best friend turned manager E (Connolly), and perennial side-hustler Turtle (Jerry Ferrara) as they navigate Vince’s career. Critics initially saw Entourage as a male version of Sex and the City, but also showered it with glowing reception through much of its early run for its biting Hollywood satire. While it fell out of favor in its final seasons, the series remained popular enough to warrant a 2015 film.
In the intervening years between Entourage’s final episode and the movie’s release, it somehow became the scapegoat for toxic masculinity and a harbinger of our current cancel-culture epidemic, designations which Ellin lamented in a recent interview on the podcast’s success. Numerous articles celebrated the movie’s middling opening weekend as punishment for the show’s alleged empty consumerism and misogyny with the editors of publications like Cosmopolitan marring otherwise positive notices with misleading titles like, “I Saw ‘Entourage’ With My Boyfriend and Even He Thought It Was Sexist.” Years after the franchise’s demise, scathing appraisals of it have become a niche genre as a certain type of critic continues to seethe, even positioning the show’s fans as complicit in rape culture. Entourage’s corpse hangs defiled at the gates of acceptable television, a warning to any artist desiring to probe masculine relationships onscreen.
Yet, Entourage could not have attained such enduring deplorable status if it were as shallow and myopic as its detractors claim. Much of this vitriol hinges on a disingenuous assessment of the series as endorsing the behavior of its characters. Consequently, it comes as little surprise that the critics who demonize the show also neglect its focus on Italian-American and Jewish outsiders beyond their depth in a Hollywood governed by caste and exploiting the youthful energies of actors as it churns out soulless property after property.
Such critique is most clear in the relationship between Vinnie and Dillon’s Johnny Drama, who tries to reconcile his angst over his brother eclipsing him by sublimating his anger into an endless cycle of beefs with veteran celebrity guest stars like Pauly Shore and Ralph Macchio. Rather than focus on dude bros achieving their dreams, Entourage serves as a character study of aspiring Hollywood professionals realizing their limitations while making the most of their opportunities. Vinnie & Co. may be arrogant and relatively talentless, but the sincerity of both their friendship and misguided forays into artistically challenging projects demonstrate a preferable alternative to the naked ambition and navel-gazing that has led influencer to become part of the celebrity lexicon.
Such antipathy toward the core four’s Queens-bred smack talk and open pursuit of wealth says more about the overly credentialed and status-obsessed world of media criticism than Ellin’s depiction of Hollywood. At its core, Entourage remains a show that pits its populist heroes against the moral relativity of the industry, perhaps the primary reason that Ari Gold became the show’s breakout character to such an extent that Ellin released a parody self-help book purportedly written by the agent turned studio head. Throughout the show, Gold proves himself an iconoclast who penetrated Hollywood’s inner circle through sheer fury. His barrage of racist and sexist remarks is less a window into his own beliefs than a performance that exposes Hollywood’s paean to progress and inclusion as a calculated front. But the series is also smart enough to use Gold to demonstrate the industry’s precariousness. Despite his success, Gold is always on the precipice of career and financial ruin whether dealing with being fired from his agency or indebted to a Texas oilman (played by Billy Bob Thronton) with a hefty investment in the studio Gold runs in the movie. For a field that venerates itself in films like La La Land and The Artist, Gold provides a dose of reality to insiders and a crash-course in Hollywood’s resentment of us plebes in flyover country.
As a result, much of the venom critics have spewed toward Entourage likely stems from the show’s willfully ignored achievement of making nuanced observations about social-justice issues in a language that simultaneously appealed to bro culture and prestige cable watchers fifteen years before it was trendy. Gold’s most vulnerable moments occur through banter with his homosexual Asian-American assistant Lloyd (Rex Lee). Despite Gold’s self-aware predilection for Asian and gay jokes, the show never treats Lloyd as a stereotype or mouthpiece, giving him his own narrative arcs and an easy camaraderie with the boys. Likewise, the series features a slew of strong female characters from Gold’s agency partner Barbara Miller (Kathleen Turner) and studio head Dana Gordon (Constance Zimmer) to the two one-night stands who plot to confront E for seeing them on the same day in the film. Misogyny has become so synonymous with the show that Emmanuelle Chriqui, who plays E’s girlboss love interest Sloan, felt compelled to defend its focus on scantily clad female hangers on as an accurate representation of Hollywood. When Entourage began to serve as shorthand for white-male privilege in the early days of #metoo, only The Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg seemed to recall its series-long evisceration of Harvey Weinstein and dedication to depicting and referencing Hollywood’s sexual harassment in its subplots at a time when both were taboo.
In Cancelling Comedians while The World Burns, Ben Burgis characterizes good art as adding depth to our inner lives by making us extremely uncomfortable. If the continuing onslaught of screeds against Entourage is any indication, the show’s artistry may equal or even surpass the likes of Mad Men, The Wire, and other more-lauded prestige counterparts (though Wikipedia’s entry on the “Golden Age” pointedly excludes it in favor of such groundbreaking series as NBC’s The Voice and Disney’s Even Stevens). Regardless, the success of Ellin’s podcast has already led to tenuous rumors of the show’s revival at HBO. While some critical reaction to this news may rival a new iteration of the series in sheer entertainment value, Entourage’s resurrection would prove a welcome addition to the peak-TV landscape as well as a reminder of how sanitized our definitions of art have become.