We are gathered here today to mourn the death of bro sex comedy series. They have lasted far longer than anyone expected, but with the imminent series finale of Californication and the movie that will finally send Entourage's twin luxury planes flying off into the sunset, at long last, we can declare these two series, and the genre they defined, dead. There were other, shorter lived shows that proudly belonged to this fraternity, some self-serious like How to Make It in America, some silly like Blue Mountain State, but the presence of Californication and Entourage in the hearts and on the T-shirts of America's bros made them the centerpieces of the genre. With these shows six feet under, this era of bro comedy TV comes to an end.
You have two options when a bad man dies: you can pretend they were better than they were or you can take a careful look at their lives and try to find some lessons to help those they left behind to live better. The same is true of television shows. Both of these series followed the exploits of a man who claimed pursuit of an elusive white whale. For Vincent Chase (Adrien Grenier) Moby Dick was that next big movie; for Hank Moody (David Duchovny) it was reunion with the love of his life, Karen (Natascha McElhone).These distant goals on the horizon weren’t something these characters actually worked towards, though. These were vague, open-ended, convenient excuses to facilitate the delivery of male sex fantasy. Tits, ass, booze, bottles, and conspicuous consumption weren’t mere distractions, they were the point.
Vince and Hank were never going to claim their prize, because what they really wanted was to cling tightly to the status quo. These men had no desire to rise above their failings; audiences showed up week after week just to see those failings. These shows weren't about the journey or destination, but rather the erotic scenery that distracted you on the way to nowhere.
Entourage and Californication were never about storytelling. The characters had goals in the same way an addict wants to get clean: they tell you that they’re going some place, that things are gong to change, and you come back week after week only to be disappointed. There can be great stories about dating. There can be great stories about sex. There can even be great stories about scumbags getting laid. You just have to work in some journey towards self-awareness in between shots of dresses dropping to the floor and post-coital cigarettes. Two of the best recent comedies about scumbags getting laid are Wedding Crashers and The Tao of Steve. In The Tao of Steve, a young Donal Logue discovers the secret to seducing women, only to realize that his secrets prevent him from finding love. In Wedding Crashers, yes we spent the first act watching the masters at work, delivering the immortal line “We lost a lot of good men out there,” like machine gun fire as they lured women in to bed. But, eventually, the characters had to stop crashing weddings and take a hard look in the mirror. Hank Moody and Vincent Chase, after not just two hours, but damn near 10 years of “punching and fucking” as Moody would say, come away with about as much awareness as you see on a PUA message board.
The man-child erotic fantasy of these shows required that women never became characters. Their writing wasn’t just sexist, it was lazy. The writers on these shows understood that their core audience didn't want to see fully realized characters. They wanted beauty that could either be seduced or dismissed because “hey, she was a bitch anyway.” They wanted sex without all of the scary emotions attached. The vast majority of the women on these shows were little better than window dressing. We remember these women not by their names, but by their profession and/or ethnicity. There was the Asian martial arts teacher that Vince acrobatically laid during a private training session. There was the co-ed stripping her way through college that landed in Hank's bed. The list goes on, but suffice it to say that any common fetish and fantasy was represented between the two shows at one point or another. For a refresher course on Entourage's parade of anonymous sex objects, here is a music video produced by Spike TV starring many of the boys' nameless conquests.
Major female characters on these shows were just as poorly drawn as the anonymous hook-ups. Some silent westerns offer more complex female characterization than we saw here. Sloan (Emmanuel Chiriqui) and Karen were the perfect women that could be won if only the guys could just get their act together. Mia (Madeline Zima), Dana Gordon (Constance Zimmer), and Barbara Miller (Beverly D’Angelo) were the kind of women who wanted the success and power that was once reserved for men, and as such weren't to be trusted. Sarah Gold (Cassidy Lehrman) and Becca Moody (Madeline Martin) started out as sweet little girls, but were corrupted by the boorish masculine forces that surrounded them. Don’t worry, these shows never interrogated how the men who had disappointed them were culpable in turning these girls into jaded cynics, that would be boring and distract us from the sex we could watching in the other room.
Male characters didn’t fare much better. This wasn’t just sexist storytelling; it was barely storytelling at all. These shows were designed as erotic fantasy sequences that allowed the lost and horny among us to project ourselves into Vince and Hank’s bedrooms. That meant that no one, man or woman, could have agency besides them. We could laugh at the other characters, we could hate other characters, but we couldn't empathize with them. If we had any feelings besides “I want to fuck that” or “Man, that person is awful for preventing Hank or Vince from fucking that,” then the show had come up short.
If we find these series' portrayal of women insulting (and we should), we can feel the same way about how they painted men. Sloan and Mia and all the rest were flat, but were they as repulsive as Charlie Runkle (Evan Handler), Turtle (Jeremy Ferrara) or Johnny Drama (Kevin Dillon)? If you were a woman in the world of these shows, you had a variety of paper thin identities to choose from. If you were a man, you could either be a rich, powerful, sexy alpha male who took what he wanted at all times or you could be a beta who followed them around begging for scraps. Runkle, Turtle, and Drama were gross, sure, but the shows made a point to revel in and mock their weakness. These guys got taken because they actually fell in love with women. When they did open their hearts up to ladies, it resulted in their embarrassment. They ended up robbed, beaten, and humiliated because they dared to care. Why would someone want to be with Runkle if not to take his money? Why would someone want to be with Turtle if not to get to Vince? In the world of these shows, you either got all the money and women you can handle or deserved to be mocked because you couldn't keep up. In the world of Entourage and Californication, if you were ugly, fat, or poor, you were unworthy of love.
If you ever felt bad for the men and women that the heroes of the show left in their wake, you probably stopped watching. The design of these shows was to film a male wet dream. If you saw yourself anywhere but the driver’s seat, the series had failed you. The loose themes of the shows, “friendship is important” for Entourage and "men can’t change" for Californication, were fully fleshed out by the end of the pilot episode. They were only periodically tossed back in to force some kind of closure as Vince and company looked out over the bright lights of the kingdom they had effortless conquered or Hank lied bruised and beaten next to a hooker and a bottle of Scotch in some gutter somewhere. The themes of these shows weren't designed to do any work besides convince us that it was okay to enjoy the parade of T&A because there was really something deeper at play here, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.
As the seasons wore on, these shows got worse and worse. After season three, Californication, like so many other Showtime shows, became borderline unwatchable. Entourage lost the joy it once had, that greedy joy of a child getting a new gold iPhone with no sense of what it cost, but a joy nonetheless, as it toyed with introducing consequences for the characters. Though the men at the center of both shows saw their lives get steadily worse, they never learned anything, they never changed. In a strange way, the later seasons of these shows took on the autumnal sadness of a Chekhov play: the characters knew exactly how destructive their behavior was, but it was too late to teach them new tricks. To draw another comparison to Wedding Crashers, late period Hank Moody and Vincent Chase are like Will Ferrell’s character, Chazz Reinhold. The partygoers keep getting younger and younger and he keeps acting the same age, but now he’s resorted to “living the dream” at funerals.
It’s hard to imagine HBO or Showtime getting behind shows like these again. The active discourse around series like Louie, Orange Is the New Black, and Girls regarding sex and privilege, when directed at a show like Entourage or Californication, would set the Internet on fire. The blogosphere would realize that the Emperor had no clothes before we saw the main character in designer jeans and Jezebel would dance on the ashes. Even the hyper-masculine comedies of today like Archer, The League, and the dearly departed Eastbound and Down present a more self-conscious masculinity that takes responsibility for its man-children. Painfully emasculating failure is essential to the comedy of all three shows. From time to time, these characters are forced to come to terms with the fact that their masculinity is a façade that will inevitably crumble.
As you watched Hank Moody fall further into the bottle and Vincent Chase fall into yet another model’s bed, you got the sense that they could go on like that forever, blissfully unaware. Let's pour one last glass of whiskey for Hank Moody and intone one last somber "Ohhh Yeaaah!" for the boys of Entourage. They will not be missed.
Brenden Gallagher is a contributing writer. He tweets here.