July 25, 2011

THE SKED: The (Last) Return of “Entourage” and Cable Sundays

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Written by: Mitch Salem
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On summer Sunday nights, the 4 broadcast networks air a grand total of zero hours of original scripted programming; instead, viewers get a strict diet of animated repeats (FOX) and unscripted series like Big Brother (CBS), America’s Got Talent (NBC) and The Bachelorette (ABC).  Looking at the schedule, one would assume that there’s no audience at all for scripted entertainment to end the weekend.

During the same hours, though, half a dozen cable networks air some of their most valuable original scripted shows, most of them with significant success, in genres that range from soapy horror (True Blood, HBO’s biggest hit) to crime (Breaking Bad on AMC, The Glades on A&E, In Plain Sight on USA), from scifi (Falling Skies on TNT) to sophisticated sitcom (Curb Your Enthusiasm on HBO).  Even in Fall, when the FOX cartoons will be new and CBS and ABC bring their procedurals and soaps back to the schedule (and NBC gratefully airs football), Sundays remain the leading night of the cable scripted week, with hits like Dexter and The Walking Dead joining the line-ups (and undoubtedly Mad Men will return to its Sunday home in early 2012).  Sundays have become to cable TV what Thursdays are to the networks:  the place to showcase a network’s marquee comedy and drama.
HBO’s return of ENTOURAGE to its schedule earlier tonight completed the cable summer Sunday package.  This is, of course, the 8th and final season of the series, but by no means the last we’ve seen of these characters:  in a development that suits the general formlessness of the show, HBO has put a feature film version in development (hoping for a counterpart to its bonanza with the first Sex and the City movie), so no one should expect an “ending” when the series finishes a couple of months from now.
Tonight’s season premiere, written and directed by series creator Doug Ellin, was perfectly in keeping with what the series has always been:  a slick, pleasant half hour with the boys, gliding over reality and dramatic consequence in favor of snappy odes to luxury and friendship.  The action picked up 3 months after the Season 7 finale:  Vince had avoided jail for his coke possession by going to rehab, and as the episode begins, he’s about to go home.  Although various things have happened while he was gone (E and Sloan are officially broken up, at least for now; Ari and Mrs. Ari too), the most dramatic development is the apparently drastic diet Turtle has gone on–Jerry Ferrara is a shadow of his old self.  (I’m happy for Ferrara’s good health, but not so sure this works for Turtle as a character; his genial comfort with his own bulk was part of what made him the most grounded of the group–well, that and the pot.)  
The main storyline of the premiere was the effort of the friends to keep Vince away from stimulants of any kind and all stress–particularly difficult because he’d come out of rehab with a lousy idea for a new project (something about a dog being smuggled to the site of a mine cave-in to help dig for survivors, which Vince was going to direct himself) that no one wanted to tell him was dreadful.  In the way of Entourage, neither of these problems turned out to be very serious, and the only potentially affecting revelation of the episode, that the separated Mrs. Ari is seeing someone else, led only to Ari belting down fake vodka.  (One assumes that the fiery end of the episode won’t change much either.)  Entourage has always been interesting for its mix of accurate detail (real restaurants and clubs, genuine industry jargon, cameos by stars playing versions of themselves) and utterly unconvincing substance (Vince as an actual movie star); it seems likely to go out on the same note.
A quick look at some of the other Sunday cable series:
TRUE BLOOD:  As addictive as it’s always been, the guilty pleasure in an HBO schedule that always has its fill of high-quality medicine (Boardwalk Empire, In Treatment).  The storyline about amnesic Eric is so far delightful, and nothing but good can come from Fiona Shaw’s addition to the cast.
BREAKING BAD:  Just begun, and blistering already.  Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, and Giancarlo Esposito give 3 of the best performances on television, and the supporting cast is right there with them; Vince Gilligan’s show may be pulp, but it’s a reminder of how satisfying and deeply horrifying pulp can be.
CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM:  Larry David does what he does, and no one who’s imitated him over the last decade or so can do it as well.  Tonight’s episode, with Larry frequenting a Palestinian restaurant where Jews go for illicit meals so their Jewish friends won’t see them, was particularly inspired.
IN PLAIN SIGHT: The decision to write Mary McCormack’s real-life pregnancy into the show turned out to be a good one:  having an actual emotional through-line in the season has placed the series apart from the rest of the light USA procedurals and given it some heart–without cutting back at all on the flashing repartee.
FALLING SKIES:  TNT’s big-budget Spielberg show still seems to finding its way (it’s already renewed for a second season, so no rush).  The last couple of episodes, with danger coming from other humans rather than the CG effects or guys in monster suits, have been an improvement, and so has the toning down of Will Patton’s military man, who’s now more of a weathered colleague to Noah Wyle’s hero than an antagonist.  Moon Bloodgood, too, has stepped up in recent episodes that demanded more serious drama from her.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."