Tuesday, August 28, 2007

HBO's Entourage walks a fine line

Last Sunday evening, my roommate and I promptly tuned in to Entourage at 9:00. With an unspoken eagerness to see what Vincent Chase and his buddies would get themselves into this week, we sat through the whole episode, though I personally felt the show failed to deliver this time around.

I must admit I have gradually become something of a convert to Entourage. Initially I found the bling, the constant Hollywood chip on the shoulder and the narcissistic excesses of the show's characters to be overwhelming, and more importantly, not entertaining. But the characters exude a certain charm that grows on the viewer, which is to HBO's credit; the show has received seven Emmy nominations, including Outstanding Comedy Series. Even though the characters use foul language, indulge their every whim, and seemingly care only for Number One, many people are attracted to the humor, fast-moving plot lines and sense of adventure that consistently define Entourage. Being an HBO presentation, the show can feature content and dialogue that would typically be considered "too hot for TV." In this sense, it enjoys the same protections as Bill Maher, pushing the envelope as far as deemed necessary every week.

The envelope, as it were, was pushed unnecessarily far last week. On their way to the Cannes Film Festival, the group gets hung up at LAX, which is in the middle of a security Code Orange. The viewer can relate to the huge police presence, the delayed flights, the seemingly-arbitrary security colors and the stress of wasting a day at an airport. Apparently, the show's writers felt the viewer could also relate to stereotypes and racial profiling.

Their flight delayed three hours, Turtle and Drama (Jerry Ferrara and Kevin Dillon) are wandering the airport when they spot a man wearing a head covering. Immediately assuming this Muslim-looking gentleman is a potential terrorist, Dillon explains to Ferrara that it would behoove them to befriend him; his rationalization follows that it would be easier to talk with him now than negotiate for their lives at 30,000 feet. (My paraphrasing here is minor.) They take seats next to the man and commence with small talk, only to discover he does not--as stereotype would have it--speak English. Looking confused, the man remains silent--and therefore remains suspect.

Now, it is very difficult to know the show's motives, so caution must be used in judging scenes such as this one. Having watched the show for a couple months, I know with a large degree of certainty that Drama is the least intelligent and least likable character on the show. In other words, we like Vince and Eric so much partly because we don't like Drama. His actions thus often serve as mere fodder for laughs, and this could be no exception. If this is the case, however, the question shifts to the larger genre of comedy entertainment and its role, if any, in achieving (or impeding) social progress. Comics like Chris Rock, who frequently jokes about race, would be part of this larger, very different question.

It is equally difficult to generalize about the show's audience. A starting point, however, is provided in HBO's online Entourage forum.


Perusing through the posts, I reached the conclusion that most people who are discussing the show online are not concerned with larger social issues; the quality of Kanye West's acting in his recent cameo, the brand of sweatshirt Turtle was wearing in the episode, and the attractiveness of female guest stars are given most of the attention. This is not to say the average viewer finds stereotyping and racial profiling to be joking matters, nor that the average viewer's opinion of Islamophobia has been affected in one way or the other. One plausible concern, however, is that scenes such as this help vindicate a certain belief system, a previously-held opinion that, while not originally produced by this TV show, is being nurtured through the company of Drama.

Many would argue that one who objects to such writing should simply cancel one's subscription to HBO. After all, HBO is separate from cable and is theoretically easier to keep away from younger viewers, so what's the harm?

Bill Maher, host of HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher, was once called out by guest Al Sharpton for making homophobic jokes. Sharpton had appeared later on the program for an interview concerning the Don Imus firing, but also took the opportunity to discuss stereotypes Maher had propagated that very day. Scripted shows like Entourage, however, do not have the ability to "self-correct." Despite their common shield of HBO, Maher's obscenity is often mitigated and contextualized by general discourse, while that of Vincent Chase & Co. is not.

One does not need to read the Entourage online fan forum to know that sex, violence and material goods make the biggest impact with viewers. It must be said that shows that cater to these base, albeit human desires should not meddle in more complex social issues unless more room is made for their real, on-screen engagement.


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