Entertainment’s Love Affair with Itself
Back in the mid- to late-’90s, when The Larry Sanders Show was the best thing on television and SCTV was everybody’s favorite unavailable cult item, I had a little speech I used to make to people who lacked the will or low blood-alcohol content needed to flee my presence. “Here,” I’d say to some poor sodden wretch stretched out on my couch as he pointed the remote at my face and clicked it wildly to no avail, “we can see the wisdom of the old chestnut about writing what you know.” More conventional network shows might stuff a writer into the back of a prowl car for a few weeks or force him to haunt a big city emergency room at three in the morning, and wind up with scripts decorated with realistic-sounding “perps,” “skells,” and “stats.”
But this was mere journalism, trying to brighten up re-gifted formula schlock with shiny new wrapping paper. The people behind Sanders were writing about a talk show — a celebrity milieu they’d come up in and knew inside out. (Garry Shandling, the show’s star and mastermind, had once been a plausible candidate to replace Johnny Carson.) The SCTV players were veterans of a low-grade entertainment scene that kept them scrambling back and forth across the Canadian border, and that taught them that everyone in the performing industry is equal in the eyes of Nielson and Mammon. (One early episode of SCTV was padded with “guest appearances” by Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud, a pointless few minutes that the great lords agreed to so as to kill time in their dressing room while touring in Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land — and which the show’s producers insisted on using for the publicity value.) Because they knew the terrain as naturally as their lungs processed oxygen, the people behind Sanders and SCTV were able to dispense with the busywork of journalistic research and dig down deep, exploring every inch of the squirmy underlayer of their show business players’ souls, every intricate Chinese box of self-deception planted in their genes.
Or they could proceed straight to the launching pad, taking off in wild parodist fantasies that went places undreamt of in Sid Caesar’s philosophy. At their funniest and most harrowing — when Johnny LaRue spent Christmas Eve drunkenly sprawled on a sidewalk, wondering where it all went wrong; or when “Hey Now” Hank Kingsley, broken by the public failure of his latest marriage, holed up in a hotel room with a matronly hooker — these shows seemed to be saying, “We are intelligent and talented people. Driven by a need to feed our families, we have written original material for Jan Murray. Ivan Reitman has called our names, and we have come crawling. This is some of what we learned in our march through Hollywood Hell. Listen, and live with it, if you can.”
The results were just about the best series TV on record until producers like Joss Whedon and David Chase discovered the joys of metaphor and transference. (Surviving high school feels like battling demons, what if a gangster was stuck with my mother, you know the drill.) Since then, the most interesting series on TV have tended to either drill deeper and deeper into procedure (The Wire), personal neurosis (Curb Your Enthusiasm) and pre-adult autobiography (Freaks and Geeks) or else spiral into ever wilder and more garish flights of fantasy — superspies (24, Alias), fantasy islands (Lost), and even mothers and daughters who like each other (Gilmore Girls). But suddenly, within the past year, it seems that you can’t swing a dead cat in the vicinity of your TV set without hitting some new “inside” show about what’s really going on behind the scenes of our entertainment culture. Given the scale of these weapons of mass distraction, you might think these shows have a special relevance to our situation. Such relevance would be very welcome; we are, as the Chinese curse goes, living in interesting times, with terrorists, unchecked environmental havoc, and Orwellian politicians laying waste to our country. But most of these shows just feel like an evasion, one more pointless distraction. They make life behind the scenes look very much the way that life looks with the set flats still in place, and never has that life looked more disconnected from the lives of most Americans.
The 500-pound gorilla of the genre is Entourage, which has just completed its second season on HBO. The show follows the doings of hot hunk actor Vincent Chase (Adrian Grenier) and his three pets, holdovers from the good old days in New York — Kevin Dillon as Vince’s older brother (known as Johnny Drama), a semi-established actor spinning his wheels on the C-list; the pothead lout Turtle (Jerry Ferrara), who Vince must keep around to help him maintain his grip on the concept of “expendable”; and our identification figure, Eric (Kevin Connolly). What makes Eric the identification figure in this company is that he’s every bit as colorless and boring as his pals but is meant to be the brains of the outfit. The bright lights and big city haven’t turned his head to the full extent that they have the useless Johnny Drama and Turtle, who aren’t merely shameless about leeching off their high-flying friend — they seem oblivious to the fact that golden geese have been known to dry up. Eric gets himself appointed Vince’s manager, which gets him in a position to keep the goodies flowing. And Because he cares about Vince, and wants to honor his desire to have a “good” (i.e., award-winning, artistically respectable) career, it also puts him in a semi-adversarial position to Vince’s agent, Ari (Jeremy Piven), who wants to package Vince in high-paying blockbusters and
cash in while the iron’s hot.
Piven is Entourage’s designated sparkplug. (Piven used to play the beleaguered head writer on “Larry Sanders,” who got caught fucking an intern in every nook and cranny of the show’s set and was then fired, mid-thrust, by Rip Torn’s godlike Arthur. “Look at that, ” Torn mused as Piven continued plowing away, “it didn’t even phase him. ”) The worst you can say about his work here is that his character would be even funnier if we had a clear idea whether he was trying to prostitute an artist, or get every drop he can out of a flavor of the month. Grenier is a TV show’s idea of a hot movie star, a bland personality wrapped in the kind of overripe looks that are parked right at the intersection of Cute and Hot. (His untended facial stubble bespeaks not manly gruffness but a forlorn hope not to get carded again.) Except for an over-the-top TV commercial he shoots overseas for a fast payday, we never get to see him acting, and there are hints that he’s meant to be as dim as he seems — he can’t be bothered to read his own scripts, for instance. (Grenier’s big credit pre-Entourage was a starring role as the meant-to-be-brilliant, reckless student hero of James Toback’s barely released Harvard Man. That movie probably would have tanked no matter who starred in it, but Grenier’s inability to suggest even a smidgeon of the hero’s intellectual gifts or wild-man boldness helped insure that it would never rise above the status of a wilted joke.) The buddies and hirelings who live their lives in Vince”s orbit are like moths circling a Xerox of a candle flame.
When Entourage premiered in the summer of 2004, Joy Press of the Village Voice wrote that she “was shocked by ... how unshocking it is. This is a satire of celebrity life, but one so gentle that you barely feel the bite.” Press ended up praising the show for the novelty of its softness: “I didn’t really start to like Entourage — or get what it was shooting for — until I let go of the idea that it would decimate the entertainment industry, and instead let myself be entertained by this dysfunctional family of bachelors.” The fact that the show has since gone on to be praised by critics like the New York Times’ Virginia Heffernon for its alleged Mamet-y bite is just more proof that you could hype a Rorshach blot as the next big thing and people will find a reason to jump on the bandwagon. The big mystery is how, with ciphers for central characters and their petty time-killing activities in place of action, Entourage got a bandwagon to begin with. Like other recent Hollywood “satires,” the show drops in Hollywood buzz terms, familiar to the general public from such sources as Entertainment Weekly and Entertainment Tonight in a way that some people probably find flattering.
Maybe those folks get a vicarious thrill out of dreaming of
being Johnny Drama or Turtle, spending their days stoned by the pool and nailing hookers on their old high school pal’s credit card. If the characters had any stature — if they were as mature and as deserving of our interest and respect as, I don’t know, say Ed Norton (the sewer worker, not the actor) — then the smartest thing the show could do might be to have Vincent’s upward flight hit some turbulence, force them to do a little work, even fend for themselves. But as it is, the thought of Turtle being forced to pay his own electric bill is sort of terrifying.
If Entourage is the overpriced comfort pillow of hip TV, a soft little show that just wants to crawl into your lap and purr at you in a way that makes you feel in the know, then The Comeback is its polar opposite, an inviting celebrity come-on whose smile turns out to be composed of knives instead of teeth. The concept alone is enough to give Pirandello a migraine: Lisa Kudrow (who also serves as one of the executive producers) plays Valerie Cherish, once a beloved sitcom star who’s now angling to get back into the public eye by appearing in a (repulsive) new jiggle comedy. Her various humiliations as she jumps through hoops for the show’s writers, the network, and the whole celebrity-puff-piece machine are being recorded by a young producer whose footage (which is the show we’re seeing) will be the basis for a new reality series about Valerie’s comeback. (Kudrow is a fearless, gifted actress who’s given remarkable performances in such movies as The Opposite of Sex, Wonderland and Happy Endings, but she is best known as one of the stars of Friends, which finally went off the air last year in a full-fledged media pseudo-event, which adds one more layer to the fun-house mirror.)
In The Comeback, show business isn’t the non-stop party that it is on Entourage — it’s back-breaking hard work. No longer a kid, Valerie has to endure being shifted to an unglamorous, unsexy character role: the track-suited harridan Aunt Sassy, written by contemptuous younger writers who regard her as a delusional has-been. Nor does she have any private life to escape to — not with that reality-TV camera
dogging her every step. (Waiting for her at home is her stolid, stoic husband, a non-show business figure who suddenly can’t roll a joint, fuck his wife or leave the bathroom door open without receiving a tart reminder that the cameras are rolling.) Except for hilarious appearances by the veteran sitcom director James Burrows and a spirited Amazing Race contestant (as well as a late-inning appearance by Jay Leno, who demonstrates that he’s probably the only person in the country incapable of doing a good, vicious Jay Leno impression), The Comeback doesn’t go in for the self-parodying celebrity drop-ins that Larry Sanders did so well, and which have gone on to be a staple of such shows as Ken Finkleman’s The Newsroom and Ricky Gervais’ Extras. Even when such cameos are cutting, they still bestow a sprinkling of star-shine on the proceedings. The way it’s presented in The Comeback, the entertainment business has about as much twinkle and glamour as a mine shaft disaster.
The Comeback is brilliant and fearless, but it isn’t very funny. Too often, it just makes you squirm. I’m not sure why, except that Valerie Cherish is neither so powerful that her humiliations serve to bring her down a peg nor such a cartoon that she can be laughed at without guilt. She’s a nice, basically decent woman caught in a trap. She’s also not untalented, though after years as a sitcom star, her skills seem honed in the direction of winning over live studio audiences and making them like her. She clearly, desperately, wants to be liked — which makes the abuse she’s forced to take that much more horrifying, and that much less funny. Her only power comes from her ability to get the audience on her side, and when she uses it to get her way in an argument with the writers, they make her pay dearly for it. (“Here comes the hate show, ” sighs James Burrows when the rewrites come in.) When, having subjected herself and her husband to a nightmare weekend getaway in a sponsor-donated vehicle that comes with a corporate spokesman who coaches her on how to tout the product, it feels like a major triumph when she lets her husband play music on the ride home. (The reality-TV director has advised against it, in case they have trouble securing the rights.) Her triumph is short-lived; The Comeback ends by reiterating its basic idea that once people get used to the limelight, they’ll eat their own weight in shit to keep the attention coming.
It might be instructive to compare The Comeback with Fat Actress, if I weren’t nervous about just what the instructions might turn out to be. Like The Comeback, Fat Actress is about a former sitcom star trying to climb back to the top — except here the star is Kirstie Alley, playing herself as a onetime sex symbol gone to bloat. Her in-show persona is that of a sex-hungry tramp who wants her name in the tabloids, an Emmy on the mantle, a roll in the hay with Kid Rock, and all the chocolate she can ingest (and who’s too
self-involved to see that some of these goals might just be mutually exclusive). The show, which ran for seven episodes on Showtime early this year and is now available on DVD, also boasts self-parodying appearances by John Travolta, Mayim (Blossom) Bialik, and NBC President Jeff Zucker, as well as smart turns by Rachael Harris and Bryan Callen as Kirstie’s flunkies, the perpetually wild-eyed Chris McDonald as her estranged crackhead brother, and Kevin Nealon as a Spectorish record producer who doesn’t have the option of calling the cops when he spots suspicious characters hanging around his Beverly Hills estate. (Part of the fun of these shows is seeing which actors can only play themselves, and which are still considered more actor than celebrity and so still get hired to impersonate characters. It transcends family lines — Travolta, playing himself, recommends that Kirstie seek out the help of a deranged dietary advisor — who’s played by Travolta’s real-life wife, Kelly Preston.)
Fat Actress inspired much wringing of hands and wagging of fingers when it aired. Many reviewers denounced Alley for exploiting Hollywood’s size-ist sexism for laughs while pretending to mock it, and for introducing her own special cash-in wrinkle to the Pirandello Effect: the show premiered in conjunction with a new ad campaign using Alley as a Jenny Craig spokesman. Playing her weight gain for laughs while simultaneously announcing to the world that she was about to slim back down before our gawking eyes, Alley didn’t seem to be serving her civic duty of telling a nation of porkers that it’s all right to be tubby. (Many would-be dieters who heard about the scandal probably thought “hey, whatever helps.”)
As the preternaturally observant of you might have guessed just from its title, Fat Actress is not exactly possessed of the Lubitsch touch. It’s a big, sloppy burlesque, one that Alley herself wallows in happily. It makes for a real contrast not just with The Comeback, but with her last network series, Veronica’s Closet, where the star, who began to put on weight during its run, looked uncomfortable and humiliated much of the time. The show’s need to work awkwardly around its star’s physical transformation made it intensely uncomfortable to watch. By contrast, Fat Actress is broad, shameless, and in-your-face. It’s so open in the lowness of its characters’ motives and its view of Hollywood in general that you don’t have time for discomfort. It’s also, bless its squalid little heart, much funnier than The Comeback. Hey, whatever helps.
Still, however much the spectacle of Kirstie Alley using her spacious bedonkadonk to bewitch white trash rockers and alarm actual network executives may liven up the slow trudge to the grave, it doesn’t really do much for the soul. The best of the recent behind-the-scenes shows, and the only one to suggest that people might possibly go into the performing arts for reasons beyond getting their egos and nether regions stroked, is Slings & Arrows, which is also the one to go farthest off the beaten track from the Hollywood entertainment mill. (The show itself can only be found off the beaten track: a six-episode miniseries produced for Canadian television in 2003, Slings & Arrows has only played stateside on the Sundance Channel.) The setting is the tiny town of New Burbage, home to the New Burbage Theatre Festival, a dying husk of a Shakespearean theater. The master of the revels, Oliver (Stephen Ouimette) is something of a dying husk himself, once fiery and artistically ambitious, now reduced to tightening his facial muscles to keep from
screaming when the local critic tells him at an opening night party that he enjoys his productions because they’re so relaxing, unlike that awful “challenging” stuff. Sodden and self-loathing, Oliver hands in his resignation by curling up for a nap in the path of an oncoming truck. His reluctant
replacement as interim artistic director is Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross), a once-brilliant actor whose own career ended when he was institutionalized after a breakdown suffered in the most public way imaginable — while he was playing the lead in a New Burbage production of Hamlet. (Freezing up during Ophelia’s burial scene, he coped with the situation as best he could by diving into the grave and not coming out.)
Gross gives the kind of performance seen on television once in a blue moon: brainy, full-bodied, deeply felt. Geoffrey loves theater so much he feels unworthy of it, yet there’s no place else for him to go. An actor to his core, he may stay true to his pledge to remain off stage — telling someone that his onstage flip-out means he can’t act anymore, he sounds as if he were explaining that his conviction for selling state secrets disqualifies him from the presidency — but his bottled-up emotions keep erupting into off-stage scenes and bravura rants. (At one point, he crashes an actors’ party to challenge the idiot director who’s ruining the New Burbage’s latest production of Hamlet to a duel.) And it’s not as if the theater doesn’t need him; the director he assaults is a glittering fraud (crisply played by Don McKellar, the director and star of the end-of-the-world comedy Last Night) who sashays into the first day of rehearsals and informs the cast “I am Darren Nichols. Deal with THAT. ” (Accused by Geoffrey of hating the theater, Darren sniffs that he doesn’t hate the theater at all: “I pity it.”) Jack Crew (Luke Kirby), the actor playing Hamlet, is a hot young Hollywood star who’s never been in a play before. The general manager of the company (Mark McKinney), who’s poleaxed when Geoffrey is given the position he expected to inherit, is in thrall to Holly (Jennifer Irwin), the blonde representative from a corporate sponsor who’s scheming to commercialize the theater. She seduces McKinney by taking him to Mamma Mia and getting him to confess that he finds Shakespeare “boring,” and dithers about her “dream of a theatrical wonderland where middle-class families can be introduced to a world of theater in a non-threatening atmosphere of accessibility and comfort.”
Those who’ve spent five minutes in any theatrical milieu know that it’s a circus of competing egos, and Slings & Arrows has an Altmanesque, spilling-over-the-edges feel that more than compensates for its flaws. It has a few. There’s something cheap and easy about the use of a sexually manipulative woman as a symbol of cultural corruption, though Jennifer Irwin, an assured comic dazzler of an actress, brings such a spark to the proceedings that it’s awfully hard to object while you’re watching her. Another flaw is more damaging: though Jack Crew is supposed to grow into the role of Hamlet and give a terrific performance, Luke Kirby never convinces you he’s capable of pulling off the miraculous transformation; he remains a sweet but pallid pretty boy, short on fire, presence, and voice. But the biggest problem with Slings & Arrows is that you wish there were more of it. (Failing that, it would be nice to have it on DVD.) It’s not just a great series but a much-needed corrective to the impacted cynicism and acceptance of shallowness built into Entourage et al. A declaration of faith in the restorative power of theater, it is also an example of it. There are things in this world undreamt of in Johnny Drama’s philosophy.