Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Why HBO's comedies need more assholes

For a few brief weeks in 1999, Fox aired TV's greatest dark comedy. Action was a tough, cynical, raunchy show about an action-adventure movie producer named Peter Dragon. Peter Dragon was an amoral asshole: completely cynical, vulgar, and funny as hell. He picked up a prostitute (played by the fantastic Ileana Douglas) and made her vice-president of his production company. The lead actor of his new movie was a young Hollywood dreamboat struggling with drug addiction, and when a hot female starlet gained weight, Dragon forced her into liposuction. The show was brutal but very funny. These characters were unsparingly harsh, but because they were smart and witty, they weren't unlikeable. They acknowledged their amorality in a Darwinian business, and did their best to out-asshole the other assholes.

Action was short lived, but its episodes frequently air on Comedy Central. I love you, Tivo.

Robert Altman's 1992 movie The Player is one of my favorite movies. I've probably seen it 20 times. Tim Robbins's character Griffin Dunne greenlights proposed studio projects. After he begins to receive threatening postcards, he stalks a writer that he previously spurned, and ends up murdering him in an alley outside of a karaoke bar. Griffin Dunne is a smoothe, cynical son of a bitch, but like Action, The Player places him in a dog-eat-dog world. Dunne is a bad guy, but so is everyone around him. The one pure character, Bonnie, suffers for her trust. Griffin schemes his way through a murder investigation and office politics, and there's a sense that Griffin would prefer prison over losing face to his rival Larry Levy.

There is a reason why The Player and Action work so well. People in the motion picture industry are not relatable. Both make the film industry look glamorous and miserable at the same time. Shit, you don't have to be Joe Lieberman to look down on the kind of people who endorse Lords of Dogtown as a business proposition.

This is, I think, the fatal problem in HBO's two comedies, Entourage and The Comeback. They romanticize the movie business the way Fox News romanticizes private Social Security accounts. Entourage clearly wants to seduce you with its fantasy vision of young dudes with limitless resources. The problem is, I don't end up liking these characters so much as I resent them. This show would like to be Sex and The City for fellas; it's more like a Cribs episode. Plus, the four main characters are not interesting. Eric is the only one who's sympathetic, but I always end up wondering why he puts up with Vince. Turtle is an obnoxious mess; Johnny Drama has some funny moments but his narcissism is more uncomfortable and painful than funny. Vince, the up-and-coming actor heading up the eponymous entourage, hasn't had an interesting moment in the history of the series. He mostly seems vacuous and listless.

Jeremy Piven's character Ari, however, comes straight out of the Action tradition. He makes the show worth watching. Two minutes of Ari are more interesting and entertaining than the show's primary focus on a quartet of flatscreen-TV-buying halfwits. A show about Ari would be like Curb Your Enthusiasm, but more acidic.

After two episodes, The Comeback feels like an exercise in sadism. Lisa Kudrow's character ambles from one humiliating situation to another; she's like an overeager, insecure high schooler who badly wants to be part of the in-crowd but always ends up embarrassed. I've seen fewer than 10 episodes of Friends, but I've always liked Lisa Kudrow. Her character is a little dim but ultimately sympathetic. Viewing her travails is more painful than it is funny. The purpose of the show so far seems to be making her look like a fool. Once you understand that, every gag is visible five steps in advance.

Add to these two shows the regrettable Unscripted, which, like Entourage, functioned under the misconception that the headaches of attractive, young actors are interesting.

There is an obvious explanation as to why Action and The Player are great and why the HBO shows fail. The HBO comedies suffer from asshole deficits. In an amoral industry, you better make the amorality entertaining. Action and The Player let you into the heads of smooth operators: you root for them and strategize alongside them. In Entourage, the entertainment industry is either boring or envy-inducing; in The Comeback, it's just sad. Neither show is interesting. Both need Al fuckin' Swearingen to step in and whup some cocksuckers.


Flop said...

Re: My co-blogger's commentary on Entourage and The Comeback. (I'll keep this pithy and short). Agree on Piven and Eric, disagree on Johnny Drama. I like his ridiculosity at least three out of four scenes. Especially because he's portrayed in real life by the brother of a more successful actor. I'll also add that Eric stays with Vince because he's a loyal friend, said loyalty being an essential part of his character.

As far as The Comeback goes ... he's mostly got it, although I'm still going to give it more of a shot. I attempted to write a full review of it earlier, but decided to wait. My view of the show's fatal flaw, however was not its asshole deficit, but rather the lack of a truly relatable character. The Comeback clearly takes cues from The Office (UK), but it lacks a character like Tim, the one sane person in a world of idiots. Unfortunately, the lovable, slightly daffy Lisa Kudrow is relatable, yet also too much part of that world of idiots. Maybe we can do a crossover, in which she geta a role in Aquaman and we can have some more Pivenny goodness.

CrimeNotes said...

I think the Kevin Dillon/Matt Dillon parallel to the Vince/Johnny Drama situation was funny at first. Now I don't even think about it. Also, does Eric have any affirmative personality traits, or is his role simply to react to people around him? He's pretty much a yo-yo for Vince, Ari, and assorted pretty ladies.