California dreaming

An update of an old format obeys all the rules of sitcom with a watchable style

<strong>Entourage<

The Beverly Hillbillies, older readers may recall, relocated from the backwoods of Appalachia to Los Angeles after discovering oil on their smallholding. The family and friends of Vince Chase who have made a similar journey from Queens to Hollywood have also struck gold. On the basis of a couple of films, Vince, as played by Adrian Grenier, is the next big thing in the movies. His assets as an actor are less quantifiable, however, than Jed Clampett's hillbilly fortune. Variety, reviewing his new movie, calls him a "fraud", the New York Times "the next Johnny Depp". Even his own circle is uncertain why he is a star.

The least prepossessing of them, the one known as Turtle, reasons that it may be because his head, like that of all the cinema greats, is big - and he is talking hat size, not ego. Vince's failed actor brother Johnny "Drama" Chase asks if he has a big head, too. "No," replies Turtle, "but you've got big ears, if that helps you out."

The joke of The Beverly Hillbillies was that the Clampetts were too unsophisticated to change their lifestyle to LA norms, and just wanted to suck corn on their veranda. The deadly earnest joke of Entourage, the hit HBO sitcom that has finally made it here (Sunday nights, 10pm, plus repeats), is that Vince and his entourage can't change their lives enough. They throw themselves into every Hollywood excess: cars, drugs and, above all, women. Fuelling the partying is the fear that the music will stop and they'll find themselves back in New York on the wrong side of the East River.

Least jittery of the group is, paradoxically, the talent himself. Vince takes the good fortune dealt him as his due. He has the naive complacency of the preternaturally good-looking - dark, curly hair, easy tan, blue eyes, lithe figure - but is not the sharpest knife even in this pack. In the pilot, there is a disastrous meeting between the tyro star and a Hollywood producer. The exec has failed to see Vince's films and Vince has neglected to read the suit's proffered script. Reprimanded, Vince protests: "How can you compare watching a DVD with reading a script?" In the next episode, he unintentionally turns down a pretty pop singer's none-too-subtle invitation to rid her of her much-publicised virginity. Vince is a special-needs Candide.

But the subject is his entourage. They are already in hell, having exchanged friendship for the chance to become his employees. The most sympathetic of them is Eric, played by Kevin Connolly, who is nursing a broken heart from the failure of his first Hollywood relationship and has a sneaking suspicion he is out of his depth as the star's "day-to-day manager". The most loutish is Turtle, played by Jerry Ferrara, conscious that this is his chance to punch above his weight in the contest for sex, but still frequently settling vicariously for his boss's conquests. ("You've got to pop the pop star's cherry!") The saddest is Vince's elder brother, nicknamed "Drama" because of his short stint of acting in Melrose Place, his premature eviction from same comprising the reason for his constant whining. "Drama", whose only asset is his ferret-like thinness, will take any crumbs from the high table of his sibling's career. He is played, brilliantly, by Kevin Dillon which, I guess, makes him the brother of Matt.

But the stand-out character is Ari, Vince's psychotic Hollywood agent, played on a sprung coil of aggression by Jeremy Piven, who acts mostly with his shark-like teeth. "Hear me smiling," he says down the phone, and they chatter.

Down these mean streets Vince's posse struts like a gang from Queens. Coming from the other direction are the gangs of Hollywood: mincing moneymen, sashaying starlets, obsessive fans. The incidental music is rap. The look is bling. And then the boys return to the palace they share.

Entourage obeys the first rule of sitcom: trap your characters in a confined space. In this case, the prison is wealth. Entourage is beautifully constructed, lashed with rapier dialogue, and as cynical about the condition of the unbridled male as you like. I know I'll watch every episode. I have yet to laugh once.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

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The meretricious spy yarn unravels once more in this, its fifth series.

The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive
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Stephen Fry presents: you don't have to be famous to be bipolar, but it helps?

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 18 September 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Shopping: How it became our national disease