By Bill Simmons
Page 2

Here's the best thing you could say after the first season of "Entourage." It passed the VCR Clock Test.

That doesn't mean it's a great show. As I wrote a few weeks ago, "Entourage" always managed to leave me disappointed, but I was always disappointed when it was over, if that makes sense. The show started at 10 p.m., kept me absorbed for a good 20 minutes ... and somewhere around 10:23, I always found myself glancing at the VCR clock and thinking, "Shoot, it's almost over."

Why Entourage? Would you watch a show called The Funky Bunch?

That's the VCR Clock Test.

Not a bad achievement for Season One. In Hollywood, the show generated a surprising amount of buzz -- not as much as Lindsay Lohan's chest, but miles ahead of Survivor Jenna's sex tape and the launch of Tony Danza's new show. Everyone either watches it or makes a big deal about how they can't stomach it for another week. Of course, few will admit to liking the show -- there's always a qualifier like "I'm watching only because I love the agent" and "I just turn my brain off when it comes on."

But that's part of the charm. The idea for "Entourage" was inevitable: four guys in their 20's chasing chicks, busting each other's b---s and living the Hollywood life. Supposedly, they based the show on the real-life experiences of Mark Wahlberg -- his production company came up with it -- only the characters hail from Queens instead of Dorchester, and the lead character never sang "Good Vibrations" or pulled a 12-inch prosthetic from his pants. You can tell by the casting -- specifically, the meaty roles of the star actor (Vincent) and his best friend (E), two A-minus characters played by C-minus actors -- that they didn't head into the pilot with lofty aspirations. Imagine Marky Mark and his people pitching the idea to HBO:

Okay, It's based on Mark's life as an up-and-coming celebrity ... ummmmm ... it's like "Swingers" crossed with "Sex and the City," but with a little "Larry Sanders" thrown in ... and we'll use no-names to save money...

Again, I'm not holding this against them. This isn't an unrealistic depiction of life for the young and famous in Hollywood; maybe they exaggerated some elements, but the essentials are here. Like the impeccable weather. A bottomless supply of hot chicks, party scenes and discernable locations. Sleazy agents. Insane characters. Random cameos. Sweeping self-importance mixed with a healthy dose of inanity. And so "Entourage" is like a poor man's version of the Manny Ramirez Era in Boston: The plusses outweigh the minuses, you're going to laugh a number of times, cringe a few other times, but overall, it's good to have around.

(Let's see them stick that quote on a billboard.)

As I mentioned last month, the Six Show Rule was in play here -- never judge a show until the six-week mark -- so I'm judging it now. For instance, after two episodes, the actor playing E (Kevin Connelly) was single-handedly killing the show, like when those mid-'90s Pacers teams tried to win the championship with Haywoode Workman playing point. I like Jeremy Piven, but we aren't exactly talking about DeNiro in his prime -- this isn't someone who should be blowing other actors off the screen. And that's what was happening whenever Piven's agent shared the screen with E. It was like watching Shaq post up Shawn Bradley.

Which brings us to Rule No. 1 in Hollywood: Casting is everything. You can get away with Vin Diesel and Paul Walker as the leads in "Fast and the Furious" ... just make sure you aren't sticking them in "Rounders" as Mike McD and Worm. With "Entourage," Adrian Grenier plays Vince -- looking like Pete Sampras in an old Bobby Brady wig -- and he's slightly worse than OK. That's fine. You can live with him as the lead as long as he's surrounded by enough Pivens. But they misfired with Connelly as the main sidekick, who seems like a nice enough guy ... unfortunately, he graduated with honors from the Breckin Meyer School of Acting. In fact, Meyer is probably furious that they passed him over.

Here's the thing: E was the crucial role, the one part you couldn't screw up. Unless E evolves, the show can't evolve with him beyond the "eye candy with some laughs" stage. I'm sensing they want to progress beyond that, as evidenced by the final show, when E tested his friendship with Vince by demanding to become his manager. But without a good actor playing E, they're handcuffed. None of the other characters can go anywhere.

For example ...

1. Vince can't be anything beyond a supporting role, since he only cares about getting laid, getting high and becoming famous. But Grenier doesn't have any idea where to take him. In some scenes, he's manipulating the people around him; in other scenes, he's acting like a 13 year-old kid with ADD. With another actor, maybe he would have been a little more complex -- they could have explored the self-parody angle (like John C. Reilly in "Boogie Nights," or even Anna Faris with her Cameron Diaz parody in "Lost in Translation"). Grenier isn't talented enough to make Vince anything more than "likable and flighty." He's a dead end.

2. Ari the Agent can't change ... nor would we want him to change. He's the highlight of every show, just a wicked amalgam of every fast-talking, insecure agent out here (supposedly modeled after Wahlberg's real-life agent, Ari Emanuel, to everyone's delight out here). The scene when he disrupts a rival agent's beach party was probably the single best moment of the season, not counting Vince's yoga girlfriend skinny-dipping in front of E. But Ari is much more effective in short doses, almost like a third-down sack specialist. You don't want them diluting his character; you want to keep looking forward to him every time he pops up on the screen. Let's hug it out, b---h.

Jeremy Piven
What's Jeremy Piven doing here? John Cusak isn't starring in this.

(Note: I have the sinking feeling they're going to screw up a good thing here, much like when "90210" ruined a good thing and added Joe E. Tata to the opening credits. When you know Nat is contractually obligated to pop up once an episode and ask if someone wants a mega-burger, it just doesn't have the same impact. Same with revolving entire episodes around Ari. Let's hope they do the right thing next season.)

3. Vince's other sidekicks -- Turtle and Johnny Drama, the other best parts of the show -- are straightforward "comic relief" parts. You couldn't change them at this point, and you wouldn't want to change them. Turtle (played by That Guy Who Will Always Be Known As Turtle) became my favorite character around Episode Four, a sarcastic Guy's Guy who never takes his Yankees hat off, the kind of guy who would end up brawling at Fenway with someone wearing a "Jeter Swallows" T-shirt. In real life, Turtle would be angling for E's spot with Vince and stealing money from him left and right. On the show, he's harmless and gets off at least one laugh-out-loud line per episode. You could almost picture him playing video games with Sue and Double Down Trent.

As for Drama, Vince's older brother on the show -- the Don Swayze to his Patrick Swayze -- that's another one-note character, only Kevin Dillon does a pretty good job with him. (Now there's a sentence I never thought I'd type.) The scene when he crashes the Kimmel show was another classic scene -- just an unexpected, goofy moment that actually worked. And they've been able to use Drama to poke fun at Hollywood, like his audition for "CSI: Minnesota" last week ("Don Johnson's in it!"). There are moments when he edges towards "SNL skit" territory, but not enough that it's a problem. At the same time, too much has happened -- we can't accept him as anything other than Vince's loser brother.

So for "Entourage" to remain interesting for 40 episodes instead of 10, everything rides on E's character. We need to see him evolve. We need to see him adjust from Queens to Hollywood, get burned by the business a few times, question his one-sided relationship with Vince, fight off his controlling ex-girlfriend, slowly become jaded by the Hollywood experience, and eventually grow apart from the other sidekicks as they start to resent him. We need to see him drink the Hollywood kool-aid, become polluted by every hideous character-changer out here (and believe me, it's an extensive list).

That's the difference between an entertaining show and a great show -- how E handles this stuff, how the actor takes a meaty part and does something with it. After two episodes, we were looking at an F-triple-minus from Connelly. By Episode Four, as he became more comfortable, he was a solid D-minus. Near the end of the season, he moved up to a C-minus. Still a handicap. During the final episode of the season, when E started spreading his wings, his inevitable confrontation with Vince was painful -- just two guys who can't act very well -- and I wouldn't be surprised if they take great pains to make sure something like that never happens again.

Hence, the biggest problem with "Entourage": Because of the casting mistakes, it's an entertaining show with a built-in ceiling. It can be good, never great. Once the creators (begrudgingly) accept E's limitations, I worry that the show will evolve like "Sex and the City" did, with the characters becoming more and more one-dimensional, the dialogue more and more forced, the situations more and more ludicrous. Eventually it could become a parody of itself, like the way "Sex and the City" ended up -- four spent characters racing to beat each other to the next overwritten punchline.

That's the real reason everyone in Hollywood is disappointed. In every episode, Piven's agent inadvertently demonstrates how the show squandered a rare chance -- they could have parodied celebrities and posses in the same vicious way. Instead, they chose to glorify them -- there's the cool house, the fancy cars, the celeb cameos, the kickin' theme song, and every show seems to end with them sitting or standing together, gazing out to an ocean or a skyline. We get it, we get it. They're living the life. The kids from Queens made it.

Kevin Dillon
Kevin Dillon studied for his role by hanging out with his more famous brother Matt.

But what happened after they made it? Isn't that the real show?

Much like an athlete's posse, a Hollywood "Entourage" is infinitely more complicated in real life, mainly because celebrities usually surround themselves with friends from "before" they were famous ... yet many of those friends invariably turn out to be leeches and opportunists. Sometimes they have bigger attitudes than the actual celeb -- incredibly, they're the ones ordering people around and acting like asses. They're also backstabbing everyone else for Tom Hagan status; they want to be his right-hand man, the one guy he trusts, a celebrity by proxy. Ignoring these realities would be like having a show about an NBA team where all 12 guys love each other. The audience would never buy it.

Of course, these posse members need the celeb -- he's the one who supports them, employs them, opens doors that would never open on their own. It's almost like a form of addiction. They owe EVERYTHING to the celeb. So they act accordingly. And the constant butt-kissing and posturing ends up giving the celeb a mutant form of ominpotence. If everyone keeps telling me I'm great, well, I must be great. It's like a little cocoon. If you ever wondered why some of these celebrities go crazy ... well, that's why. They don't know who to trust, and the people they do trust only tell them things they want to hear.

Now that's a show.

"Entourage" decided to go another way. An easier way. On the bright side, it's funny and likable, even clever at times, and it definitely passes the VCR Clock Test. With the amount of crap on TV right now, we've reached the point where an unassuming cable comedy with some flaws -- a show that just about everyone agrees could be better -- practically reached Water Cooler status over these past few weeks.

Yep, I liked Vince and his friends. They won't be winning a round of Emmys some day, but they managed to hold my interest every Sunday night for the past 10 weeks ... and maybe that's all that matters anymore.

Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His Sports Guy's World site is updated every day Monday through Friday.