HBO and the New York Times Hug It Out

We like the HBO series “Entourage.” It’s an amusing half-hour of celebrity cameos, jokes at the expense of real and imagined Hollywood players, and biting back-and-forth banter that makes for solid popcorn viewing on a typical Sunday evening. But that doesn’t mean we’d publish a story chock full of so much celebratory filler that it comes off like a promotional fluff-job.

But then, we’re not the editors of the New York Times. Consider David Hochman’s piece in today’s Times, which posits that “Entourage” has, in its second season, “grow[n] nuances.” It has “hit its stride, much the way ‘Sex and the City,’ the previous HBO sensation about four friends in search of fabulousness, free stuff and booty, did in season two.”

To be fair, there is a kernel of truth in the story — “Entourage” is, it seems, on something of a roll. It has more viewers than ever before, more celebrity cameos, more writers and a bigger budget. But the Times piece is padded with a mix of rah-rah and blather that simply doesn’t belong in a story — not even a soft feature like this. For one, it relies on self-promotional quotes from the show’s creator, Doug Ellin, who “can tell something clicked because people are constantly emailing and calling and saying they want to do the show.” As for that nuance stuff? Says Ellin: “we keep discovering subtleties, like, in Hollywood, even a guy who makes $5 million is constantly insecure and struggling.”

If it took Ellin until the second season to discover that even rich Hollywood types can be insecure, we’re frankly amazed the show is as good as it is.

And beyond the quotes, there’s just, well, the bullshit. As we said above, we watch the show, so it isn’t hard for us to see where Hochman’s analysis, in an attempt to justify his premise and fill out the story, goes right off the rails. Consider this passage:

Each of the show’s main players has “more to do” this season, said Mr. Ellin, who writes most of the episodes. Vince is adjusting to A-list stardom while wrestling with complicated feelings for his “Aquaman” costar, Mandy Moore. His manager, Eric (Kevin Connolly), is making the move from lackey to power broker. Ari gets to prove he’s actually human, more or less, by opening the doors on his home life (though it’s tough to feel compassion for a guy who chooses his star client over Grandpa to cut the challah at his daughter’s bat mitzvah). Even Vince’s half brother, Johnny Drama (Kevin Dillon), and his friend Turtle (Jerry Ferrara), who round out his “entourage,” are reckoning with who they really are. Johnny, for instance, realized calf implants wouldn’t make him manlier after all.

We’ll grant Hochman and Ellin the notion that the characters of Vince and Eric have “more to do” of late, but Ari has in no way proven “he’s actually human” — he’s the same hilarious jerk he’s always been. Johnny Drama and Turtle have also remained in stasis — the former remains the constant butt-of-the-joke for his delusions of grandeur and the latter a likeable pothead slacker. The calf-implants storyline hardly included the character-altering revelations that Hochman suggests it did, and we’ve yet to see any “reckoning” on the part of any of the characters. Part of what makes the show work is its pure inconsequentiality — not the character machinations one is taught in screenwriting 101.

There’s a lot more filler here, including one quote that achieves a level of sheer meaninglessness that we honestly can’t remember ever seeing in a Times story — or any newspaper story, for that matter. It’s co-producer Rob Weiss’ assertion that “[w]e keep pushing these guys into situations and opportunities they’d really be in if they were living this life.” Wouldn’t a show about four young people in Hollywood by definition need to put those four in the kinds of situations that young people find themselves in in Hollywood? The quote is almost breathtakingly pointless.

We appreciate Hochman’s dilemma. He had to find a way to craft nearly 1,000 words on a subject that simply didn’t support that kind of length. But the fact is, this story makes the Times look like a publicity tool for HBO — not a serious and impartial news outlet. We’ve grappled with this issue before — sometimes a news story can’t help but straddle the line between legitimate journalism and PR.

But the Times surely should make more of an effort than it did here.

Brian Montopoli

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Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.