Skin Deep 

Like Hollywood, "Entourage" is big on dazzle and entertainment, short on substance.

For the uninitiated, "Entourage" is an ensemble comedy-drama centered on four friends living the Hollywood high life. Vincent Chase (Adrian Grenier) is an actor on the path to superstardom, and his success allows his closest friends (and his washed-up brother) to share in the good life. Eric (Kevin Connolly) is his best friend and manager; Turtle (Jerry Ferrara) is officially employed as Vince's driver; and Vince's brother Johnny (Kevin Dillon) is an unemployed Z-list actor whose claim to fame is a dodgy sci-fi series called "Viking Quest."

They live a life full of attractive women available via Vince's reflected glory, fast cars bought with Vince's money and a gigantic house in the Hollywood hills bought with money Vince doesn't quite have yet. Loosely based on executive producer Mark Wahlberg's own experiences, it's a satire and celebration of Hollywood's exhilarating excesses, edited music-video style for maximum enjoyment.

Season three of "Entourage" is more of the same hijinks, unashamedly opening with a tracking shot of some impossibly bouncy cleavage before revealing Vince and his entourage at a café table rating the passing women (the owner of the cleavage gets a miserly 6 from Johnny). It's definitely not subtle, but a perfect reintroduction to the characters, who remain remarkably shallow. Vince is still apathetic; Eric is still neurotic; Turtle is still a goofball; and Johnny is still in denial about his fading celebrity. All four are obsessed with women.

The real star of the show is Jeremy Piven as Vince's sharklike agent, Ari Gold. Initially just a villain with great catchphrases ("Let's hug it out, bitch!" is now a T-shirt), Gold's character has wisely been fleshed out. Now he has his own storylines, independent of Vince and the boys. Season three opens with Gold going solo, Jerry Maguire-style (only without the ideals), after an attempted boardroom coup at his mega-agency backfires. He's relocated to a third-rate office where the elevators don't work and the cleaning staff is on strike. Worse still, his wife is demanding they attend marriage counseling, and his daughter is dating a 13-year-old movie star brat who's "in talks with the studio about taking over the Cody Banks franchise."

While "Entourage" works perfectly as stand-alone 30-minute slices of sharply written entertainment, it needs longer story arcs to take it to the "must-watch" level. Otherwise, it's just a big-budget sitcom. The ups and downs of Vince's career provide the weekly plot, and the direction and dialogue provide the pizzazz. But it's the friendships at the core of the show that provide the drama. A perfect threat to the firmly established group dynamic arrives in the form of Dom, an old friend from their Queens, N.Y., neighborhood, fresh from five years behind bars. He forcibly inserts himself into the entourage, but, as Turtle points out, "five just don't work," especially when the fifth member is an aggressive gorilla-shaped freeloader and a reminder of where they all come from.

"Entourage" will never reach the dramatic heights of "The Sopranos," and the characters may never be held in the same affection as the girls from "Sex and the City," but three seasons in, it shows no signs of slowing down. S

Season 3 of "Entourage" starts Sunday, June 11, at 10 p.m.

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