If there is an alpha male among alpha males, it must be Type A big shot Hollywood agent Ari Gold on HBO's showbiz comedy Entourage.
Gold has stormed through the offices of his talent agency, lobbing paintballs at the staffers he intended to fire. And when the show's lead character, Vincent Chase, wanted a role, Gold psyched an agent for star Heath Ledger into dropping out so his guy could get the part.
As Entourage begins its final season tonight, Gold will face the ultimate test for a rich, powerful player who seems to have it all.
Losing his wife and children in a painful divorce.
"He makes a real transformation based on the fact that he's losing his wife and family," said actor Jeremy Piven of his character, who learns that his wife of 19 years is sleeping with a famous chef during their separation.
"The character is completely gutted this season and lost," added Piven, who has won three Emmy awards playing the driven, in-your-face Gold. "For seven years he's been incredibly focused on his career; Ari can be a force of nature, but to reveal that he's really human is a great opportunity."
For creator Doug Ellin, Gold's challenge is the crowning moment for a series that has always been more about friendships and personal connections among a group of guys than Hollywood satire — even with guest performances by players ranging from Andrew "Dice" Clay to Avatar director James Cameron.
"I realistically wanted to show what a divorce could be like for a powerful guy in this town," said Ellin, who created the show in 2004, loosely based on the life of executive producer and film star Mark Wahlberg. "I wanted to get back to the show's roots, the friendships from the first season . . . that feel of the guys all really coming together for each other. I always saw it as a show about guys who are lifelong friends with the backdrop of Hollywood."
Entourage isn't alone in its creative exploration of guyness. FX's Rescue Me, which began its final season July 13, soars while tracking the dysfunctional efforts of a house full of firefighters to cope with the aftermath of Sept. 11.
But with both Entourage and Rescue Me headed off into the TV sunset, coupled with TNT's great discourse on male aging, Men of a Certain Age, being officially canceled this month, fans of these real men on TV are stuck with a niggling question:
Where will we still see such finely tuned male relationships like these on the small screen?
Focus on relationships
This season on Entourage, plotlines are flying fast as ever.
Even as Adrian Grenier's Vincent Chase emerges from rehab ready to jump back into his showbiz career, his best pal-manager, Eric Murphy (Kevin Connolly), is dealing with fallout from his called-off wedding. Meanwhile, Kevin Dillon's frustrated actor Johnny "Drama" Chase is trying to keep co-star "Dice" Clay from killing their promising new animated series.
At heart, they're all childhood buddies relying on one another to get through the shark-infested waters of Hollywood.
Ditto Rescue Me, which takes its final bow in the 10th anniversary year of 9/11, as Denis Leary's volatile Tommy Gavin gets noticed by telling off a TV reporter doing a sleazy tribute.
The real juice powering this show is the guyness of its characters, who have a code about everything from arguments over nature channel shows (could a cheetah beat a hyena?) to what specific epithet to use when equality policies force the house to hire its first female firefighter.
"Who could forget the episode called 'Tw--'?" said actor Diane Farr, who played firefighter Laura Miles on the show's first and second season. She starred in the uniquely named episode where Miles is called that name and gets a crash course on the way men insult one another in all-guy environments.
"They were sitting around debating whether the C-word or the T-word would work," Farr added, laughing at the memory. "Those were the best scenes in the show; those six or eight guys sitting around a table in a firehouse talking in a way you or I would never witness.
"The New York Times even called to interview me because the reporter really believed I might be bothered by it," she said. "But that male friendship is the heart of the show; I had a harder time sitting behind a desk on (the CBS drama) Numb3rs, being pregnant and doing nothing."
The sizzle in Rescue Me's scenes always has come from that essential struggle: the most masculine of men flailing to redefine their roles in the wake of the most emasculating attack in recent U.S. history.
"The show looks at men being honest in conflict with their emotions," said Elwood Watson, an American studies professor at East Tennessee State University and co-editor of the book Performing American Masculinities: The 21st-Century Man in Popular Culture.
"Men have always been (shown) to be impervious on TV," he said. "If this show would have been made in the '60s or '70s, (Leary's character) would have been a minor level Superman. But Rescue Me makes him honest, tough but very vulnerable. It humanizes him, in a way."
This season, Leary's Gavin shows his humanity in many ways, from caring for an alcoholic daughter when she falls off the wagon to befriending a former lover going through cancer treatments. (ER alum Maura Tierney appears in the story line close to the real-life cancer bout that forced her to quit the NBC series Parenthood last year.)
Farr said plans for Rescue Me were born when she, Leary, co-creator Peter Tolan and the cast from the New York-set ABC show The Job visited firehouses in support after 9/11. After the network canceled The Job, Leary and Tolan centered their next series on a wiry, alcoholic firefighter pushed close to breakdown.
"It was supposed to be about post-traumatic stress disorder," she said. "But the fun about it was watching the guys bounce off each other."
Entourage provides that same thrill, Watson says, but in a slightly different context.
"It's about the trust, loyalty and commitment these guys have with each other," he said. "The message is that, for these men, loyalty and trust come over any other factor — financial success or a one-night stand or anything."
A shift in masculinity
This fall on the big broadcast networks, men fighting to stay manly seems to be the theme in new shows.
On ABC alone, Tim Allen plays a macho guy living with his wife and daughter in Last Man Standing; Man Up is a comedy featuring three guy friends trying to keep their masculinity in a tough social world; and Work It stars two laid-off buddies who masquerade as women to get new jobs.
With this surge of new shows, I see a network that has a lot of female viewers trying to draw a few men, too. Watson explains such shows a little differently.
"A segment of American men are running scared," he said. "They feel their roles are constantly changing, there's a lot of confusion and anxiety. And I would say confusion loves company."
Entourage's Ellin hopes to get in on that trend, creating a series for HBO called 40 that stars Edward Burns (Saving Private Ryan) as first among a quartet of friends facing middle age during tough economic times.
He'll finish the first season of that show — which he calls "a comedy-drama in the tone of Swingers or Diner" — before developing a script for a film version of Entourage, which he reluctantly confirms is likely to happen.
Still, Ellin doesn't think the HBO show's seven-year running commentary on male friendship and fame did much to change viewers or the TV industry.
"I just think we captured the realities of how this business works, how some deals get made, and the friendships of guys who grew up together," he said. "We might have (inspired) some kids to try and come out to L.A. and try living this lifestyle. But actual adults being cheesed by us? I don't think so."
Eric Deggans can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8521. Blog: tampabay.com/blogs/media. Twitter: @Deggans.