Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Life Lessons from Ari Gold

Entourage ended its 8-season run earlier this month. For those who are unfamiliar with the show and/or are brand new to the blog and thus haven't seen me comment on it for the past 6 1/2 years, this show follows the adventures of Vincent Chase, a young movie actor transplanted from Queens with his older brother and two best friends. The four experience the ups and downs of Hollywood (mostly the ups, with plenty of women, booze, and toys to go around), with a lot of winking at the audience thrown in as its many guest stars play over-the-top version of themselves. It's a show that never took itself too seriously even in its more serious moments, and the four guys always seemed to make it through every setback with their little fraternity completely intact.

That fraternity actually had a fifth honorary member, although as the series went on his storylines seemed to diverge a little more, as if the show's creators realized that he stood out from other characters on the show. Of course, I'm talking about Ari Gold, Vince's agent played by Jeremy Piven. As an aside, I actually began watching this show because of Piven, as I've been a fan of his since the first time I saw PCU.

Ari could be quite a contradiction. Earlier in the show's run, this wasn't the case as much: he was ruthless and rude, frequently butting heads with Vince's friend and manager Eric and going on expletive-laced tirades on whomever happened to be around when the mood struck him. We were also given indications early that he'd feel little remorse about cheating on his wife with his beautiful young then-assistant. The first season in particular saw an Ari who cared little for anyone besides himself, and he was little more than a caricature of how Hollywood agents really are.

Fortunately for both the show and the audience, Ari evolved over subsequent seasons. His win-at-all-costs attitude was shown to be more of a hopeless devotion to the betterment of Vince's career. One example is Ari sending an aging producer whom he finds annoying on a wild goose chase around the city: it seems cruel, but one of the underlying reasons for it is to keep him from messing up Vince's chances of landing a new movie deal. When those same shenanigans come back to bite him, Ari tries to go the extra mile to make things right even if it turns out to be for nought. "You should have seen me today," Ari says to Vince of his running around town. It's true: Ari had gone above and beyond for him, but it was too late. In another instance when Ari is offered a position as head of a movie studio, one of his first comments to his wife is, "If I take this, I could get Vince any part he wants." Never mind all the other careers for which he's responsible: it's only Vince whom he mentions by name. The further the show goes on, the more we see how much Ari wants the best for his young star, and how far he'll go to get it. This is part of the reason he doesn't stay fired for very long: he takes that event so personally that he makes fixing the relationship a priority.

We also see that Ari is more of a family man than originally portrayed. Contrary to overtures he makes in the first season, Ari tells someone later on that he's never cheated on his wife "since she became my wife." While that may not sound like much, it at least shows that Ari does consider the marriage covenant more important than we're first told. A minor plot arc in a later season shows Ari trying to make sure that both his kids are able to attend a prestigious private school which eventually sees him tearfully begging the headmaster on his doorstep to let his kid back in.

While Ari maintains his abrasiveness throughout the series, there is a constant undercurrent that he is driven at least in part by his desire to pursue the best for his family and his client. I say in part, because he is also plainly a workaholic: he is good at his job and he knows it. He thrives in his office environment and owns any meeting into which he steps. He's hardly ever not holding a cellphone, and he's constantly barking orders at others, clearly comfortable in his position of authority. We see him running out at all hours way more often to do something for Vince than to do something for his family. It's a common theme for workaholics: their jobs make more sense, are more controllable to them than their home lives. Ari exhibits this in spades the entire series.

Ari's choice of priorities eventually lands him in a tough spot during the last season as he reaps what he's been sowing for the previous seven seasons. His wife finally decides that she's had enough and wants a divorce. While they've been attending couple's therapy for years (for which he's frequently late and during which he often answers his phone, neither action registering to him as a poor choice), she finally decides that no good is coming from it. As a result, Ari is confronted by his own blindness toward his family and seems to go through stages of grief: he shows denial and surprise at first, which gives way to anger when he sees his wife with someone else (Bobby Flay, for some reason), and then to outright despair as he begins to get drunk frequently and neglects his own hygiene. Two events finally lead him to begin making things right, the first being a confession that he still loves his wife to a woman to whom he turns for comfort. The second is when he plays a CD of his daughter's musical performance and marvels at how talented she is, as if discovering this fact for the first time. This leads him to quit his agency and suggest to his wife that they spend a year in Italy as they've always dreamed of doing.

Ari's story in the final season of the show is an exaggerated (though how exaggerated it actually is is disputable) portrayal of what happens when career is prioritized over family. That's not to say that career should not be important: if you can do something well, why not strive to be the best that you can be? However, there comes a point if career is given so much more credence that one's spouse and/or children can be easily neglected.

Pastors in particular can fall into this trap very easily. We could be called to someone's bedside in the middle of the night, we are often asked to give up so many weeknights and weekends, and churches generally place a lot of emphasis and importance on our position that we may easily get caught up in that sense of being needed; of being held in such esteem. We can get caught up in the mentality that the church rises and falls based on our performance, and this can lead us into dangerous territory with family and friends as we gradually allow ourselves to give more and more time and energy to our job (and make no mistake that seeing it as a "calling" can make for a handy excuse). All it takes is a few small compromises at first, and if we're not careful we'll just keep making them until we're fully assimilated. Our problem--or the problem of anyone in such a specialized position where you're depended upon for specific skills--becomes the same as Ari's: this job makes sense, we can do it well, people depend on us, we can control it. Can't you see how much I'm needed? I can't not go! I can't not miss my son's school program! I can't not cancel our date night to be with dying Aunt Mildred! I have to devote another Saturday to a youth thing instead of going to the zoo like we talked about! I have to! They're depending on me!

It was Ari's devotion to Vince that helped set him down the path of giving himself so completely to his work. Ironically, it was also his devotion to his family as he sought the best life possible for them. More than once during the series, his answer to his wife's confronting him about his work habits was some variation of, "I'm doing this so that you and the kids can live well." At times his wife's response was, "You can do that by actually being around." Again, one of the main reasons behind workaholism is ego: doing a job well, but also doing it for the sense that you're bettering your own situation. When Ari listens to his daughter's CD, the fact that he needs to be more personally invested in his family's life is driven home. He may be the breadwinner, but sitting down with his family and actually breaking bread with them would be far more meaningful.

In the very last scene of the show, we catch up with Ari and his wife relaxing on the porch of their Italian getaway. They share a long, passionate kiss before she walks inside to get a bottle of wine. While she is there, Ari takes a phone call from a Hollywood mogul offering him the CEO position at his company. The details of the position are outlined: responsibility for billions of dollars' worth of assets and a lifestyle more extravagant than Ari has ever known. He quickly hangs up when his wife returns and pretends that it's a wrong number, but he's still left with the choice of continuing down this path of reform and reprioritizing, or breaking the news that they'll be returning to the States so that he can take a position that he knows he can do and that would set him and his family for the rest of their lives. The choice hangs there as the final credits roll, as it does for anyone who loves both family and work. What will Ari do? Indeed, what would any of us do?