Monday, April 09, 2007

HBO Sunday Night review

The return of HBO's mob drama The Sopranos and Hollywood buddy comedy Entourage elevates television viewing to a whole 'notha level.

At around 9:03 PM on Easter night, as that blinding HBO screenshot turned my Samsung HD into a prop from Poltergeist and the thumping baseline of the Sopranos theme "Woke Up this Morning" by A3 started shaking my surround sound, a chill ran down my neck, goosebumps rose on my arms, and I thought... cool is it that creator David Chase decided to keep that obscure-but-totally-perfect song after all these years, preserving the best intro to one of the best television shows ever made?

Before long I was totally re-immersed in the life Soprano, hanging on every morsel of Jersey dialog, dissecting every scene in search of possible clues as to how the show will end, and mostly just smiling a wan smile knowing that this was the beginning of the end of my time with one of the best television families ever created.

And so began a terrific night of non-reality, non-celeb dog & pony show, non-broadcast network entertainment, an hour of the intense Sopranos along with 30 jam-packed minutes of Entourage to form a full 90 minutes of great, character-driven television. Since these two gems in the cable network's crown had so many similarities between them in their openers I decided I would do a tandem review, sorta like an intertwined pile of hairy mobsters & horny starlets.

Season 6 part II, Episode #78: "Soprano Home Movies"

The show begins with a flashback from a 2004 episode. Tony and Johnny Sack are talking shop in Johnny's backyard when seconds later the Feds invade the area, forcing Tony to flee on foot through the snow. What we didn't see then is that Tony dropped his gun as he stumbled in the drifts, a mistake that will come back to haunt him after a teenage neighbor retrieves the piece and takes it home.

Flash forward to 2007 and Tony & Carm are asleep in bed. Suddenly, loud pounding is heard throughout the house, prompting Carm to nervously ask "is this it?" As Tony peers through the blinds and sees cops swarming his yard we are led to believe the answer is "yes". But Carm was referring to the big Federal bust every mobster always fears, and this is just a bunch of local cops out to harass Tony by hauling him in on the 2-year old weapons charge.

Nevertheless the sight of the head of the family in the back of a squad car with cuffs on proved that this final mini-season of the Sopranos was underway with a bang, teasing us by showing what could possibly become of the man everyone wants to either emulate or emasculate.

What follows for the next 45 minutes is a lesson in Sopranos family values, where the only thing that's more whacked than their enemies are the familial ties that bind.

We learn that Tony & Carm had been planning to head upstate to celebrate Tony's 47th birthday at a lake house with Janice & Bobby, but the whole arrest thing kinda put a damper on Tony's spirits. Meadow is at home and (still) in school, but apparently her dentist husband/ Vitophobe Finn is out of the picture now; and trouble-making son AJ has "settled down" with his older Puerto Rican girlfriend Blanca and her young son. After Tony is bailed out and returns home, he takes one look at his son cuddling with the toddler and his girlfriend and decides that it might be a good idea to head upstate after all.

On the ride up Tony learns from his lawyer that the cops have dropped the charge, and once the couple hits the cabin the direction of these final 9 episodes starts to take shape. When Tony arrives at the house, which was inherited by Bobby from his father, he takes in the breathtaking view and says "you know I gotta admit it, every time, once you're up here, it's pretty great." Cue foreshadowing music, please.

A classic David Chase juxtaposition scene follows, as Bobby and Tony head into the woods and Bobby gives Tony his birthday present: an automatic, 800-rounds/clip AR-10 assault rifle. "Don't say anything to Carmela" Tony says like a schoolkid, as he then violently unloads a slew of rounds directly into the heart of the pristine New York wilderness. Pretty great, indeed.

Things appear to be going well for the family when Tony tosses Bobby an important job that had been promised to the now-incarcerated Johnny Sack. This could finally be the sign that Tony is willing to let his brother-in-law move up the corporate ladder. But after the sun goes down the booze starts flowing, and hours of Bombay Sapphire-fueled Monopoly paves the way for some hot-tempered family feuding.

The madness starts when Janice tells a story about how their dad shot their mom through her beehive hairdo when Tony & Janice were kids. Tony is enraged that Janice revealed the secret, and when Carm asks why he never told her the story he replies "because it makes us look like a fucking dysfunctional family." Absolutely classic line!

Anyway, things get intense when Tony starts flinging drunken slurs at his sister, at which point mild-mannered Bobby decides to stick up for his spouse and tells Tony to lay off. Tony appears to agree with the assertion that he crossed the line, until he mutters an even filthier crack, which sets Bobby off; he belts the don in the face and the two become embroiled in a full-blown grizzly-like brawl, complete with sucker punches, crotch shots, and enough blubber to supply an Alaskan fishing village for a month. When the dust settles Tony has been beaten pretty bad, and we realize that the lives of the men have been altered forever.

In the morning a nervous (for her wealth) Janice and (for his health) Bobby attempt to brush aside the incident, imploring Tony & Carm to stay the rest of the weekend. Bobby reminds Tony that they have a "business" meeting with some Canadians set up later, and they reluctantly agree to stay. Little did we know that Tony would come out of that meeting with a way to exact a little revenge on his sucker-punching brother-in-law.

The Canadians present a nice deal to Tony, providing valuable-but-expired osteo-perosis pills at a significantly reduced rate. In an effort to sweeten his end of the deal, Tony offers to help the 'canuck' get rid of his sister's pesky ex-husband, who is threatening to take her kid from her. As the Canadians leave to contemplate this, Tony casually turns to Bobby and asks him "you'll take care of this, right?" Bobby visibly gulps and slowly responds "sure", but learned earlier that despite his old man being known as the Terminator, Bobby is a virgin when it comes to a mobster's favorite pastime, killing.

Thus the complex wheels oiled by family loyalty, broken vows and regrettable decisions are set in motion on that perfect spring day in the New York wilderness. Bobby immediately heads out to fulfill his assignment, knowing there is no possible way for him to back down after what he did to Tony. He tracks the kid to a Montreal laundromat and blasts him with two shots, but leans too close and gets a piece of his shirt ripped off before fleeing the scene (note: earlier Bobby referred to not wanting to be a killer especially with the way DNA evidence is today, so I think it's safe to cue that foreshadowing music here, too.)

The ep ends with a somber Bobby returning to the lake, where he clutches his young daughter tightly as he ruefully stares at the placid scene. And with that the return of our favorite family drama had a little bit of everything: snappy one-liners, family issues, scenes both boring and plot-forming and, blessedly, a killing. Some things not included were a notably absent Christopher (save for a cameo in which Tony hangs up on him), Dr. Melfi (we see her in the previews for next week), Sil & Paulie (cameos) and no possible goomah for Tony-yet.

But don't worry, I'm sure a lot of things are going to change over the next 8 weeks.


Entourage: Season 3, Episode # 35 "Less Than 30"

We start out a few months down the road from where season 2 left off, and while some things have remained the same, others have changed dramatically. As Vince gets ready to celebrate his 30th birthday, E. is the voice of reason while Turtle frivolously spends their money, and Drama has finally landed a solid gig in Ed Burns' NBC pilot. Meanwhile Ari is still agenta-non-grata with Vince, who has a new agent and career direction following the disappointment of losing both "Medellin" and the Ramones pic.

The season kicks off with Drama in front of a gigantic billboard on a remote section of Sunset Blvd. promoting his new NBC series "Five Towns", a blatant rip-off of the failed NBC family crime drama The Black Donnellys. As Turtle snaps picture after picture ("it's digital, there is no waste" Drama assures him) Vince and E. pull up and immediately begin ragging Drama about taking a photo in front of his own billboard.

And just like that I was as easily sucked back into the lives of the four swinging Hollywood bachelor buddies as I was the brutal & bloody circle of friends of the previous show. There's just something about seeing these good-natured, fun-loving, BFFs do what they do, namely razz each other mercilessly, party like rock stars and spend money like it's made out of mere paper.

We are immediately introduced to Vince's new agent, who is unlike Ari in many ways. For one it's a she, as in Amanda, played by yummy Spy Kids mommy Carla Gugino. Amanda has taken her new client in a different direction, steering Vince clear of indie projects and high-profile box office fluff in favor of more 'serious actor'-esque work. When she proposes an adaptation of an Edith Wharton period romance called The Glimpses of the Moon to be directed by Sam American Beauty Mendes, Vince & E eagerly agree to read it over and get back to her immediately.

But first things first: they must celebrate Vinnie's impending B-day. Amanda gets the boys courtside seats to the Lakers game, and who do you figure is there but TV land's own version of Jack Nicholson, Ari Gold. Thus begins a hilarious homage to high school-era crushes, with Ari obviously jealous of the new girl in Vince's life, and, still pining for the one client he truly cared for, he vows to get Vince back by using any means necessary.

As the boys give Vince's their opinions as to whether Ari should be invited to the party (no exes at a birthday party, never, never, never" says Drama) Vinnie & E agree to give Ari a sitdown- over coffee- to feel out the situation. Awkward as the meeting may be (kind of feels like I'm trying to fuck you guys" Ari says. "Are you?" E responds), they soon realize what Ari's intentions are, and it involves some pretty heavy courting.

That includes giving Vince a copy of the script for the supposedly out of circulation Medellin as a birthday present while deriding Amanda's paltry offerings: "the Lakers game, the fucking Lakers game?! I put him on the court on fucking Arbor Day and that's her present? God, she's so fucking wrong for him." And this gem to E: "do you know Edith Wharton? It's always the same story "guy can't fuck the girl, cause those were the times; can Vince really relate to that?" Cue the John Hughes theme music.

By now Turtle's plans for Vince's bash have gone way "overboard', as in an 800-person guest list, and E orders him to come up with a way to fund the party because he is cutting off his share at $30 grand. When Drama suggests switching to generic alcohol, Turtle comes up with a brainstorm that will allow the gang to have its Kobe beef and eat it, too.

The bash turns out to be a narcissistic extravaganza on board the Queen Mary, which Turtle had sponsored by materialistic icons like Red Bull, Carvel, Victoria's Secret and Skyy Vodka. But the real fireworks do not involve the pyrotechnics display but the head-butting between Amanda and Ari over his offering her client an unavailable script. Ari insists the role is coming open and begs Vince to meet with him for one minute, where he proceeds to confess that he still wants Vince (presumably as a client), telling him "I know you better than she does, and I can get you anything you need." Vince responds by saying "I thought you just wanted to be friends?", to which Ari replies "I can't, I care about you too much." Fucking priceless!

In the end Vince rebuffs Ari's advances, telling him he "needs to move on" because he has (oh, burnt!) just as Amanda & E come out and beckon Vince to come cut his cake. As Ari passes Amanda he whispers "he'll be back" in her ear, to which the she responds with the line of the night:

"Do you want me to walk you to your car? This town isn't safe for bitches." Double burn!

Yet in the end Vince pulls a Vince Being Vince moment when he tells E and Amanda to put the Wharton project on hold just in case Ari's right about Medellin becoming available. As another awesome outro, the chunky & funky hip hop clubber Lapdance by N.E.R.D. plays I was left thinking what a great way to break in a new season. Or is it a new half of an old season?

Either way my epic opus is complete, just in time for the next installment to roll around. I tried to keep it short, but with so much content crammed into a mere 90 minutes, it's hard to decide what to leave out.

I'd better get an editor as these seasons progress.

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