Ari vs. Mata Hari

040207 article cover Ari vs. Mata HariThe night of April 8 is going be a big, big, BIG one for HBO. The Sopranos return (finally) for the beginning of the end of the eight-year-old series; parties will be given, volumes will be written, and hand-wringing will ensue over the prospect of a David Chase–free television future. But before we fall to pieces, let us take a moment to appreciate—to honor!—Entourage. Tucked in behind everyone’s favorite mob family at 10 p.m., it’s the shameless, capitalist buddy-bonding comedy that redeems Tony’s dark night. It’s morning in Malibu to the Sopranos’ belching Bayonne. It’s that rarest of all entertainment products: convincing escape.

Since first airing in July 2004—the perfect antidote for the anxiety of a Sunday night—Entourage has been an intoxicatingly slick Cinderella story set to a hip-hop soundtrack, following the adventures of a young Hollywood hunk-on-the-rise and his three trusted childhood friends. (The show is loosely based on some of executive producer Mark “Marky Mark” Wahlberg’s personal experiences.) From the beginning, it offered an irresistible premise: What happens to four schmoes from Queens when one of them, blessed with talent and good looks, is able to open the gates to Hollywood—with all its many naughty perks and pleasures—for them all?

Vince Chase (Adrian Grenier) is the languid and laidback pretty-boy star; Eric (Kevin Connolly) his level-headed manager; Johnny “Drama” (Kevin Dillon), whose only brush with fame—besides being Vince’s brother—came with his role on the comic-book-convention favorite Viking Quest; and Turtle (Jerry Ferrara) the pot-smoking, kicks-collecting, always-there-for-you pal. The unofficial fifth member of the boys’ club has been lovable-monster super-agent Ari Gold (Jeremy Piven, who’s single-handedly responsible for “Hug it out, bitch” entering the vernacular).

But times are a-changin’. The last time we saw them, the boys were firing Ari, and now, to add insult to his injury, there’s a stiletto-wearing interloper prowling around. The April 8 premiere introduces us to Vince’s new agent, Amanda, a pillow-lipped, steely bombshell with a penchant for black, low-cut garments. Played by Carla Gugino (of Sin City and Snake Eyes fame), Amanda is sex in a power suit. She’s all soft curves with taut, coiled energy, unafraid of a 6 a.m. phone call and very big on eye contact. Our first glimpse of her comes when Vince greets her with “Is that my agent or America’s Next Top Model?” “Don’t patronize me, I know I look like shit,” comes the fast, husky reply. “I was up all night fighting with my ex …. What kind of man sues for custody of a Labradoodle anyway?”

And with this brief interchange, a new dynamic has been sprung on Entourage. Amanda is no Ari—while he trashes offices, sweats and is prone to spectacular histrionics, she’s cold, terrifying. She’s careful not to show vulnerability. “I’m not worried, I’m annoyed,” she snaps at Eric, when Ari inevitably tries to try to get back into Vince’s good graces. She’s unafraid of screaming at her new clients when she thinks they’re out of line; who’s working for whom, we wonder? Eric later will relate to the experience as being called into their old principal’s office. “I could hear her through the door,” Turtle marvels (all the guys agree it’s kinda hot).

“He’ll be back, hack,” Ari tells Amanda in the first new episode.

“You want me to walk you to your car? This town’s not safe for a bitch,” she says, without missing a beat.

MUCH OF THE DELIGHT OF Entourage has always come from its peeking behind the curtain at the machinations of Hollywood—the casual references to box-office returns, Us Weekly, Page Six and Variety, and the celebrities that crop up as themselves, like Paul Haggis, Mandy Moore, Seth Green and Ed Burns (whose brother is a writer and producer on the show), that make it seem insidery without feeling exclusive. With the boys’ loyalty to Queens Boulevard, it offers the perfect Los Angeles fantasy for residents of the five boroughs; we bask in their eternal sunshine, we swim in their pools, but we also know they’d be just as at home here, with us, with our pasty skin and pizza parlors.

None of it goes over our heads. When it comes to signing a comedy writer, Ari tells his assistant, the much-abused Lloyd (Rex Lee), that there’s wisdom to signing Jim Carrey so you can get the guy who created Drew Carey. “I hear [Tom] Cruise is going for 10 cents on the dollar,” Ari tells a producer, played by Adam Goldberg, later in the season, where the action mainly takes place in synagogues across Los Angeles (while at the track, the goyim gang from Queens comment on the lack of traffic due to the holiday). But, like such successful buddy films as Diner and Swingers, it’s the banter and chemistry between the main players—the honest-to-goodness man love that exists platonically between them—that gives the show its heart.

With Ari on the outs, a sweeping arc of the beginning of this season is the hilarious parallel of Ari’s relationship with the gang as a busted romance; Ari thinks of himself as—and the boys treat him like—a spurned lover. “No exes at the birthday party,” Johnny Drama says while planning Vince’s birthday party, when Eric points out that beside his relationships with them and his own mother, Vince’s longest relationship has been with Ari. When Ari tries to set up a friendly dinner with Vince and Eric, the guys downgrade it to coffee instead (“Coffee says, ‘I sip, but I’m not sucking’” is Drama’s logic). When Ari wheedles a moment alone with Vince, he pleads: “I know you better than she does. I know everything that you need.” Ari’s funk over the loss of Vince sends him into a spiral of depression, which manifests itself in a loss of appetite (and previously unseen compassion)—plus extra visits to his shrink. Later, he admits: “I lied. I can’t just be friends.”

Amanda may be tough, but like any new girlfriend, she bristles even at the mention of Ari’s name. To mark her territory, she urges Eric and Vince to consider new kinds of projects, and pushes Vince to take the lead in a Sam Mendes–helmed adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The Glimpses of the Moon. “Do you know Edith Wharton?” Ari says later to Eric. “It’s always the same movie; guy can’t fuck the girl for five years ’cause those were the times. Can Vince really relate to that?” When it turns out that Vince is only interested in the project because Amanda seems to like it so much—seeing Amanda excited made him excited—Turtle says what has been clear from the beginning of the season: “This is the problem of having a hot-looking agent.”

Indeed, it doesn’t matter how fierce Amanda is—how aggressive, how brash or brassy—she’s still a beautiful woman in a man’s world. How’s a smart, talented woman supposed to do her job when all the men around her can’t see past a pair of legs, or breasts, or a sexy smile? Is it to her advantage to play up her (ahem) assets? And what of the men who will do anything—even a Sam Mendes adaptation of Edith Wharton—to please the girl?

Women on Entourage have always fallen into two categories: vapid, sweet, gamine types and tough-talking ball-busters. There have been countless pretty young things that drift in and out of the guys’ lives (Eric is apparently the only member of the Queens crew programmed for monogamy), and then there are the tough-as-nails gals: Vince’s publicist, played by Debi Mazar, with her truck driver’s mouth; Ari’s wife, played by Perrey Reeves, who seems to be the only person Ari is truly afraid of (and undyingly loyal to); not to mention Ari’s flinty new partner Barbara Miller, played by the great Beverly D’Angelo (“Are you crying?” she asks, disgust evident, when Ari starts to have a meltdown).

Amanda, however, is a wholly new model of character, an intriguing hybrid. Maybe one day she’ll be another impenetrable Babs Miller, but today she’s still got her youth, and the hormones and desires that go with it. She’s well aware of her sexual power (“Do you want to fuck me?” she asks one character as casually as discussing the weather), but it’s unclear if she has it entirely under her control. It’s murky territory at best: Does she use her feminine charms to intentionally intimidate others and ultimately get her way? Or does she need to create a tough-gal exterior to protect her secret soft underbelly from Hollywood’s famous shark-infested waters? (Caution, Amanda: Real-life super-producer Lynda Obst tells The Observer that “sexuality doesn’t win, in the end …. The more they can hold those these things in check and behave, the more they succeed in the board and stay balanced.”)

Except for the occasional complicated threesome, sex has always been on the simple side for the boys on Entourage. It’s usually a catch-and-release game. But now that it’s wrapped up with power, it’s become a question of who’s controlling whom. Vince and his pals have always operated on their own terms, but with a lady to impress in the mix, will it tamper with the group dynamic or derail Vince’s career? And will Ari rescue us from this gender war? Stay tuned!

But come on. We love Entourage because it’s a fantasy! Vince is the kind of movie star we all wish we knew—or even knew existed: generous and loyal to his friends without fail. He foots the bill for their extravagant housing and adventures and buys them expensive gifts when his movie goes to No. 1. When Turtle expects to cut the line for limited-edition sneakers because he’s there with a celebrity, Vince gently chides him into the back of a line, and then lays out $20,000 for a special pair when Turtle misses out. He supports his older brother in all his endeavors (calf implants!), and while he seemingly is able to (and often does) sleep with any starlet or cocktail waitress of his choosing, the audience knows that underneath it all, he’s a big ol’ romantic with a vulnerable heart (see season 2, where he completely loses his mind over Mandy Moore).

Vince’s entourage is made up of friends and family that love him without resentment. Even Ari, who can joyously sling homosexual and Asian jokes with the best of them, and who this season describes firing people as one of his favorite job perks, seems to adhere to a surprisingly stringent moral code. He loves and is faithful to his wife, worries over his little girl, and is miserable without his favorite client. Most fantastical of all, we get the sense that that has nothing to do with money.