Entourage Return Crucial for HBO

Are we going to be OK? That’s the big question established quickly in the upcoming fifth season of Emmy Award-winning HBO comedy Entourage as central movie-star character Vincent Chase and his dependents try to recover from their misfire film, Medellin.

But as the show returns Sept. 7, that question surrounds both it and its network, as well as the television industry in general.

In the year since Entourage was in originals, a lot has happened at HBO. Despite several attempts, no new HBO series drew more than cult followings. This left Entourage holding the mantle as HBO’s highest-rated series on a network that once enjoyed the simultaneous brand-burnishing successes of The Sopranos, Sex and the City and Six Feet Under.

In addition, the Writers Guild of America strike delayed production on Entourage like so many other TV programs, and an entirely new regime was installed at HBO. Not to mention the economy slipped into a full-blown recession.

Despite ongoing speculation, HBO’s distribution executives have not yet taken Entourage out to the syndication market, although by the end of this season, nearly 70 episodes of the series will be in the can. Since syndie sales are best timed to hot irons, a new season of Entourage that connects with viewers would go a long way toward securing a rich run for its repeats and restoring some luster at HBO.

Creator Doug Ellin maintained that he is unfazed by any pressure to perform on behalf of HBO when he spoke last week with B&C executive editor Melissa Grego about the season premiere. However, he did explain why he believes Entourage will be more than OK.

Q: Entourage is up for five Emmys, including Outstanding Comedy Series. How about that?

A: Yes, it was unexpected. Some people thought the show lost its way last season, and not to defend it, I thought it was our weakest season. But this season I think we have our best season.

Q: Why is this season the best?

A: I just think it all came together. Last year, we had a little trouble keeping it together. I think the through-line arc works better this year. There are great cameos, we got [executive producer and Entourage muse] Mark Wahlberg back. We shot with Phil Mickelson, Tony Bennett, and we have a lot of great directors on the show.

Q: You wrote three of the first four episodes. Do you usually write that much?

A: I usually write the first two and the last one. Over the years, a lot of rewriting goes into the process. This year, we have three writers on actual scripts [Ellin, Rob Weiss and Ally Musika]. I wrote 60%-70% this year. I wanted to start it off and say this is where we are going.

Q: HBO has been criticized for not coming up with other standouts like Entourage, and folks are eagerly awaiting entries from the new executives. What do you make of that?

A: That doesn’t matter to me at all. I feel less pressure. I felt last season was our weakest season and we were successful. Anything with HBO has nothing to do with me; they don’t put that on us, we just do our thing. I feel great to be there; no matter what people say about them, I think it’s the best place for us to be.

Q: How did the WGA work stoppage impact Entourage and its production and premiere schedule?

A: Basically, we lost two episodes. We didn’t have time to get the 14 done we initially set out to do. I had a story line that was going to deal with the writers’ strike to air in June, when were going to start airing. It just hurt us. We were supposed to be on in June, now we’ll be on in September. If there are no other strikes, hopefully we’ll be back on track for next summer.

Q: Where does syndication of Entourage stand?

A: I have no idea. Literally, I try to not even spend my time thinking about it. It can distract you. I would like nothing more than to syndicate Entourage. My agent and HBO I’m sure are trying to find if the options are there to do that.

Q: Do you shoot alternative footage?

A: We shoot without nudity. We don’t shoot without curses -- but we do sound, we do looping with them.

Q: Where are you in the production process this week?

A: We have three days left after today. A few days left shooting in New York. Four more days, then it’s a wrap and we premiere. We are shooting in New York … Late in the season they go home.

Q: Looking ahead to this season, you’ve got some people playing themselves, others as cameos. Why are Giovanni Ribisi and Lukas Haas not playing themselves?

A: They were just great actors. [Entourage cast member] Kevin Connolly did a movie with them and thought those guys would be great. We auditioned a bunch of people for the part and then thought, 'Let’s get some great actors in here.'

Q: In the premiere episode, you have film critic Richard Roeper going to college with the character Ari, but you already established where Ari went to college and I do not think it’s the same place. People have given you a hard time about continuity before ...

A: Yeah, I don’t really care. Ari’s had three kids, now he has two. People want to say I’m moronic. I do know the details, but sometimes it’s not as funny.

Q: He may have a new film-review show.

A: Hopefully. He’s great. Maybe he’ll do some acting, too. Everyone talks about improvisation on this show. Michael [Phillips] and him made up their whole thing. We gave them scripts we wrote, and they said, ‘What do you think if we did this?’ It was much funnier than what we did. So they can write, too.

Q: Last year, you and some of your Entourage cohorts were developing a show for HBO set in the hedge-fund world. What came of it? Did you shoot a pilot?

A: We didn’t shoot it. We got a script. Right now, we are trying to decide [with HBO] what to do with it. The stock market crumbled in the meantime.