Imaginary Friends

If this were a real shot from the show 'Entourage' instead of a publicity still, these fancy playboys would be wearing shorts from J. Crew

If this were a real shot from the show 'Entourage' instead of a publicity still, these fancy playboys would be wearing shorts from J. Crew

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Remember those Sex and the City-inspired baby tees that declared, "I'M A CARRIE" in girlish script across the wearer's bosom? Sure, the shirt also came in Miranda, Charlotte, and Samantha-centric styles, but those seemed to languish on the racks at Suncoast while an army of self-described Carries took to the streets. There are lots of shows people like, but very rarely does a fictional character seem like she might be willed into actual existence by obsessed fans. (Luckily, as of this writing, Carrie Bradshaw is still safely confined to DVD.)

Once in a while, an ensemble show comes along that compels us to identify—strongly—with a particular player. What couch jockey hasn't felt a peculiar bond with a Brady (I'm a Cindy), Bayside graduate (Screech), or Seinfeld chum (Kramer)? These dialogue-spouting ciphers become our mirrors, our imaginary allies. Somehow, our flaws seem much more precious when they're scripted. I remember I once had a roommate who'd watch Friends and interact with the characters as if they were actually in the room. "Oh, Joey!" he'd guffaw, Diet Slice in hand. You'd think they were literally his Friends, a phenomenon that probably does a great deal to explain that show's wild success.

This year's most irresistably personal show is Entourage, which is odd considering the characters enjoy a lifestyle available to nearly no one. Vincent Chase (Adrian Grenier), a lithe, sleepy-eyed movie heartthrob, is the antithesis of the Everyman. He's perpetually flanked by his best friend-turned-manager, E (Kevin Connolly), his so-called personal assistant, Turtle (Jerry Ferrara), and his has-been brother, Johnny Drama (Kevin Dillon). All four of the guys originally hail from Queens, and their cynicism toward L.A. is frequently countered by their wide-eyed appreciation of its pleasures.

Yet even though Vince's homies are omnipresent—they accompany him to premieres, film festivals, even the occasional awkward date—we never get the sense that they're pests or sycophants. Vince needs them even more than they need him, particularly E, the long-suffering foil to Vince's mercurial artiste. Sure, Turtle and Drama use Vince's name to score Playboy Mansion invites and celebrity swag, but Vince leans on his friends so heavily that they've earned the bennies. Really, the boys are Vince's surrogate family: E is the pragmatic daddy, Turtle the antagonistic little brother, and Drama—well, with his penchant for home-cooked meals and occasional etiquette lectures, we can only conclude that Drama is mama.

And then there's Ari Gold, the fifth Beatle of the Entourage tree-house club. Ari, played with pyrotechnic intensity by Jeremy Piven, is Vince's hilariously ruthless agent. Although Ari frequently belittles E for his lack of experience (before managing Vince, E toiled at a pizza parlor), E has an uncanny ability to outsmart his adversary. Beneath Ari's reptilian sneer, there's a cowering, even childlike man beneath. (Ari's wife, "Mrs. Ari," is also skilled at disarming her spouse, despite his caveman bravado.)

Surprisingly, Ari has become the most vulnerable character on the show, especially since he got booted from his agency at the close of Season 2. Now he's on his own—well, with support from his "Gaysian" assistant, Lloyd—and his reputation hinges on the success of Vince's new movie, Aquaman. Sure, Ari's personal Waterloo has been amusing, but I personally hope he bounces back with renewed ferocity. Besides, Vince is so maddeningly Zen that he needs a speedball like Ari to keep him on task.

There are other planets in the Vincent Chase star system, though none as charismatic or iconic as Ari. Vince's foul-mouthed publicist Shauna (Debi Mazar) is generally shrill and one-dimensional, but she has moments of tenderness. She consoled Vince, for instance, after his nuclear bust-up with Mandy Moore. Actually, the guys cycle through dates so rapidly that heartbreak is rarely an issue, though E seems to be on a genuine quest for true love. In moments like these, the show feels like E's journey rather than Vince's. While Entourage is a true ensemble, we root for E to prove Ari wrong, to guide Vince into a meaningful and lasting career, and to get the girl (or in the case of this season's juicy threesome spoiler, the girls). E, unlike Vince, is just real enough for us to see ourselves in those wistful Irish eyes.

This season explores Vince's rapid ascent to real-deal celebrity status. If he was Josh Duhamel before (vaguely famous), post-Aquaman he's Toby Maguire (legitimately famous, but needs to transcend the tights to earn further cred). Vince himself doesn't seem fazed by the pressure, but Ari and E are quaking in their Gucci driving oxfords like Chihuahuas. The stakes are high, and the gang of five may have become more reliant on Vince's cachet than they're willing to admit.

So how does a show that features Maseratis, private jets, James Cameron, and Perfect Ten models manage to generate a spark of "that's-so-me" recognition in the average viewer? Fling aside all that Hollywood tinsel and you'll see classic relationship dynamics at play. Who doesn't have a high-maintenance Vince in her life, or an obstinate Ari, or that friend who still lives comfortably in the past? ("I've been working for the past 12 years, with the exception of the last three," Drama says.) And by hanging the show on a rising star, rather than an established A-lister, Entourage maintains a measure of aw-shucks wonder.

The guys might act jaded, but every new high leaves them adorably gobsmacked. This show is its coolest when it allows itself to be a little uncool.