Mr. Coogan's So-Called Television Column

One of the “chic” comments coming from the television industry (and entertainment industry in general) is that the sitcom is dying. With “Friends,” “Sex and the City,” and “Frasier” ceasing production this year after long, successful runs, experts (and subsequently, viewers) wonder which shows have the ability to step up and carry the genre. Networks are cutting the amount of time and money being put into comedies and instead investing in the next big reality show sensation that will usually be good for fewer than 25 episodes before the viewing audience gets sick of it but continues to stick on the air because it was once cool and hip.

While it’s hard to deny the elephant in the room that is reality television, I don’t agree with the idea that “The sitcom is dying/dead.” now or ever.

What I do believe is that the standards of the sitcom have been raised considerably. It’s no longer enough to stick a cast on a production stage and come up with a thousand different versions of a “family” or “workplace” situation. It’s also no longer enough to come up with the same tired jokes that can be seen two to three lines in advance. It’s no longer enough to see the assorted “wacky” situations that are wrapped up neatly in 22 minutes (30 with the commercials and credits). And it’s definitely no longer enough to have the same one-dimensional main characters that have a specific role and can’t ever deviate from that.

This is why shows like “The Simpsons,” “Scrubs,” and, as of the time that I’m writing this, the multiple Emmy award winning “Arrested Development” have jumped to the front of the class in terms of funny sitcoms. Hell, even the brand new “Friends” spin-off “Joey” could be lumped into this list. I say that because these shows are all irreverent, different, sharply written and the bottom line: funny.

Maybe it started with “The Simpsons,” maybe it started with “Seinfeld,” maybe it was “Friends” to some degree. Then again, considering the recent history of the genre, maybe it really was shows like “Scrubs” and “Arrested Development” that started the new trend. Either way, it’s there staring at you like a clichéd sportscaster who still says “The pitcher helps his own cause.” when he gets a hit that scores a run: Think out of the box.

These sitcoms prove it’s OK to be a little more weird and random in telling stories and delivering jokes that are different than what Jack Tripper would have said in 1979. These funny, successful shows do different things, incorporate more than the occasional reference from news and popular culture and aren’t afraid to make sure that make jokes that make the viewers pay attention and remember older episodes.

That leads to the new HBO comedy “Entourage” which finished its first abbreviated season last week (and can be seen again in its entirety in October). Forget the fact that HBO is behind this show and has plenty of money to blow on potentially experimental programs like this. “Entourage” has the ability to establish itself as one of those great sitcoms like “Arrested Development” because it is different and those involved with it “think out of the box” for the most part.

The show takes place in Los Angeles and essentially follows the life of up and coming stud actor and Tom Cruise wannabe Vincent (Vince) Chase (Adrian Grenier) and the three people in his life that grew up with him and know him the best. The three guys live with Vince in a mansion in the Hollywood Hills, spend his money, and use Vincent’s status to go to parties and get laid. Two friends (Turtle played by Jerry Ferrera and Eric or “E” played by Kevin Connolly) and his half-brother (“Johnny Drama” played by Kevin Dillon who happens to be the brother of the more famous, Matt Dillon) are the fellows that mooch of the young, lady hungry millionaire.

Doug Ellin gets credit for creating the show, but apparently, it was simply a brain child of Mark Wahlberg’s production company and it is (very) loosely based on his experiences as an up and coming model/rapper (remember “Good Vibrations?”) and film star. In addition, renowned television writer/producer/director Larry Charles (“Seinfeld” and “Mad About You”) wrote three of the series’ first season’s episodes.

“Entourage” is unique because it has a completely different feel than other comedies on television. It’s been noted that it’s recorded in more of a documentary type setting (kind of like “Arrested Development”) as opposed into the straight comedy setting where characters tell stories and jokes in front of a camera. The shows FEELS like four guys in their mid-20s (or potentially in the 30s in the case of Johnny Drama”¦) hanging out, smoking weed, spending money and trying to score chicks at the hottest clubs and parties in town.

It’s funny, at least in part, because it simply is these four guys busting each othe’s balls for various reasons. Whether it’s E’s infatuation with his ex-girlfriend, Johnny’s struggling acting career, or Turtle’s penchant for wearing sweat pants, these guys always have something to say about one another. I feel like I would do the exact same things with three of my best friends if I was a millionaire living in the Hollywood Hills.

The gold mine of the show, whether intended or not, is Vince’s agent, Ari Jacobs, played the accomplished comedic actor, Jeremy Piven. In addition to looking at the life of the four guys and their quest for “love,” the show also looks a lot at Vince’s career and how he is going to maintain and build his star status. That’s where Ari comes in and Piven plays the character brilliantly. Not only is he a power hungry asshole, but he speaks like he’s taking over the world of Hollywood one client at a time while also acting as some fast talking combination of a publicist and an off the wall father figure. All this is going on while he vaguely attempts to please his overbearing wife without losing the edge he’s consciously trying to create.

The Sex”¦comparisons

Some critics have briefly compared “Entourage” to the recently departed “Sex and the City.” The comparisons really are uncanny. There are the obvious ones like the fact that there are four main characters of approximately the same age that generally involve themselves in assorted mayhem and mischief and make jokes about it. It also could be argued that “Sex and the City” was a show that started moving away from the typical studio set and into the more documentary style production since it was on location and didn’t appear to follow a typical script format.

More importantly, “Entourage” could be compared to “Sex and the City” in that there is an inanimate, but very vital, character that helps contribute a great deal to what the makes show as special as it is: the location.

The same way “Sex and the City” utilized the island of Manhattan and all the art, design, booze, and general combination of the highest of high and the lowest of low cultures as a “character” of the show, the writers and producers of “Entourage” utilize the same technique with the rich, luxurious, but remarkably vapid Hollywood life. Whether it’s the gorgeous mansion in the Hills, the ridiculously expensive eateries that the guys always eat at and can always afford, the set of a TV talk show (Jimmy Kimmel this season) or the clubs and parties that only people on the “A-List” get to go to, the point is the setting is just as important as the characters on the show. Without the Hollywood setting, there wouldn’t be a mansion, all the money, all the parties (and the girls), and most importantly, there wouldn’t be a prick like Ari that people love to hate around either.

This is another way that the show separates itself from comedies of the past. “Will & Grace” takes place in New York City, but the way the scripts are written, it really could take place in upscale parts of Toledo or Salt Lake City and it wouldn’t make much difference. That particular show is character and situation driven where as “Entourage” also relies on the exploration of a lifestyle that many people would love to be a part of and can’t get enough of simply because they would love to be a part of it. “Sex and the City” managed to do the same thing and managed to do so without it relying on jokes and situations that only New Yorkers would ever understand.

Is the show perfect?

Of course not”¦Let’s be honest. Bill Simmons of ESPN.com’s Page 2 pointed out very clearly that the two main characters with the most interesting storylines — Vince and E — weren’t cast very well and, consequently, their performances could use some work. That’s especially important because as much as the banter of four obnoxious young men living the good life in Hollywood is fun, if that’s all it depended on to survive as a show, it would probably morph into a series of “Saturday Night Live” skits that would feature Horatio Sanz cracking up in the middle of a taping.

Grenie’s performance as Vince has largely been lifeless to this point. I suppose that could work very well since many people believe that celebrities only have personalities when the camera is on anyway. However, there were several instances in the writing that required Vince to provide more than a customary “Eh”¦it’s cool. I’m living the life and getting laid.” type reaction, especially if it potentially interfered with the life he’s tried carving out for himself. Whether we want to blame the writing or the lack of depth in Grenie’s portrayal of the celebrity, it would be nice to see Vince start considering some of these deeper issues in Season 2.

Connolly’s depiction of E is probably the most important because he’s the only one of the four characters that is supposed to have any truly serious concerns. Turtle was written to be happy sitting on the couch watching TV, and the Drama character was largely written as comic relief to what it’s like to be a struggling actor (“CSI: Minneapolis?”). Meanwhile, Vince made E his “manager” but that largely meant being a poorly paid gopher who goes to meetings with the agent and publicist while Vince gets laid or smokes weed. E is expecting more from his “position” and at the end of the season made that clear to Vince. The only problem is his performance isn’t at the highest level and despite the potentially engaging storyline, it would be very easy to forget about him and hope Ari and Drama would get more screen time.

Despite the glaring weak performances, the show has remarkable potential to be a major player when addressing the issue of the supposed “dying sitcom.” It’s different, edgy, and the humor is designed to accompany those traits. In 2004, that’s what is important in a sitcom. The bar in the genre has been raised in the last few years or so. “Entourage” has the chance to meet those standards if those involved (especially the actors) continue to grow and try new things. It’s not perfect, but I still remember watching some of those first shows of classics like “Cheers” and “Seinfeld” and they needed a lot of work too.

So, the challenge is out. Keep getting better and one brief eight-episode season could turn into a long run and a series of Emmy nominations like “Sex and the City” enjoyed. After all, the similarities are there. If not, well, I’m sure “Arrested Development” and “Scrubs” will be out on DVD soon enough.

I just hope don’t it to come to that. I pay too much money for cable.

— Coogan