Posted on May 13, 2007

There’s a reason one-man firing squad Ari Gold ends up with the best lines on a show that was originally supposed to star a prototypical pretty boy. Not only is “Entourage’s” Ari blessed with inner rage and outsized cojones but he is also, and perhaps most important of all, given a particular gift for the one-liner. Superagent Ari doesn’t just steamroll people as he relentlessly claws his way to the top – he cuts them down to size first.

And this, of course, is precisely why we love him. There are some who claim that “Entourage” would be equally entertaining without Gold and his epic self-absorption, but I bet it would only take a few Ari-less episodes before the show’s beachy Hollywood depiction would grow unbearably stale (and not just because someone needs to represent the sharp-toothed population of those truly shark-infested waters).

TV land has been developing some serious bite lately, and while Ari’s certainly not the trend’s archetype, his triumphant usurpation of “Entourage’s” focus may just be its highest summit yet. The era of the Homer Simpson-style dumb-male buffoonery is slowly passing. The modern sitcom viewer is tired of hapless. Soulless is funnier.

Perhaps we can credit HBO and its flexible language policy for initially expanding our cultural appreciation of the certified prick. The “Sopranos” wiseguys use the f-word with a frequency bordering on nervous tic, and “Deadwood’s” utterly magnetic saloon boss Al Swearengen has cursing in his very name.

But true douchebaggery is becoming less about foul mouths than all-around priggish behavior, and the more overt the display, the better. If Larry David simply bumbled his way through “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” we’d just roll our eyes at another clueless moron and change the channel with hardly even a yawn. But Larry doesn’t bumble; he bulldozes, charging loud and cranky into awkward situations with all the finesse of a prodded bear. He’s crotchety, unpleasant and hilarious. And you don’t even have to like him.

That’s what’s so riveting about an asshole – as a viewer, you’re under no moral obligations. He’s a villain you can root for and a protagonist you can jeer; he invites your mockery as much as your love.

“The Office’s” Dwight Schrute would be amusing enough as a socially awkward dweeb, but factor in his cutthroat corporate ambitions and he becomes a singular addition to the TV pantheon, as na’ve as he is malicious. Dwight is a pathetic office drone that you never feel obligated to pity – he’s too relentlessly self-absorbed to ever notice that he’s being mocked.

Even the primetime medical setting has gone the way of the jerk. George Clooney’s roguish charms may have fueled the female fan-base of “ER’s” inaugural seasons, but a decade later the ladies are tuning in to small-screen hospitals to fawn over the perpetual bad mood of House, M.D.

Perhaps there’s something to that stereotypical preference for bad boy, after all. No one over the age of 14 is watching “Scrubs” for Zach Braff’s brand of sweet-natured dopiness. It’s Dr. Cox’s endless barrage of insults that sends rating soaring (and, on an unrelated note, his woeful new curls that have recently been sending them back down).

As Dr. Cox’s signature sissy-girl name-calling demonstrates, there’s also a certain level of hyper-masculinity in this developing trend. Never fear: Women are merely underrepresented in asshole-dom, not completely left out. The testily raised eyebrow of “Arrested Development’s” cocktail-swilling matriarch alone stands as pop culture proof that women can indeed age with as much acid as grace.

Of course, Lucille Bluth’s entire clan is a study in self-serving conniving and sibling putdowns, but she’s the undeniable queen of manipulating their various ambitions. Though the show boasts ample physical comedy, its bread-and-butter lies in the manic power shifts of its interpersonal feuds. The Bluths’ nit-picky battles seem silly to an outsider, but they take them dead seriously.

If you’re among those who prefer the simpler comedy of a fat guy in a little coat, there’s little need to fear that the current preference for David Spade snarkiness won’t eventually swing back to Chris Farley buffoonery. Were Farley’s good-natured ineptitude released today, however, it’d probably seem a little soft, as would a classic piece of silliness like “Dumb and Dumber.” In the Will Ferrell age of dim-witted narcissists, Harry and Lloyd are just dim-witted nice guys. They seem less textured; they’re less in your face.

Nice guys don’t really finish last, but they don’t make you laugh. In the recent rush of mainstream comedies that’s just as bad. There might be some optimists out there who remain convinced that beneath Ari’s snakeskin exterior lies an inner teddy bear and a heart of gold, but they need a refresher course in reality. This isn’t some “Home Improvement”-style hubristic idiot male; unlike the vainglorious Tim “the Tool Man” Taylor, Ari isn’t tied to the sitcom convention of learning his lessons (and licking his staple-gun wounds).

After all, his final advice at the end of the day is to mend conflicts with a “hug it out, bitch”; how appropriate that his sole show of affection is actually just a means to an end. These assholes may not be heroes, but they still save the day.

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