Entourage creator Doug Ellin recently posted a copy of Johnny Drama’s (Kevin Dillon) résumé on ew.com. Most of the struggling actor’s faux roles are good for a laugh, like “Tori’s Stalker/Eddie” on Beverly Hills 90210. But one entry highlights Entourage‘s seductive combination of slyness and heart: “Original Joey” on the Friends pilot. At first the line seems like another funny throwaway, but on second look, it speaks to the frustrating elusiveness of stardom. This is why Drama still pursues his dreams of fame, despite a decade of rejection. Back in ’94, you see, he came this close. It makes you want to shake your fist at the sky and curse Matt LeBlanc’s name.

From the beginning of the series (now in its third season), Drama has watched his younger, handsomer half-brother Vince (Adrian Grenier) being groomed for success, and has in turn suffered insecurities as much as delusions of grandeur. When he wanted implants to pump up his calves in Season Two, he explained to the plastic surgeon, “I’m an actor by trade. My legs [dramatic pause] are my livelihood.” Dillon’s touching comic performance is just one reason why the show is so compulsively watchable.

Entourage‘s winning formula is based on three elements. First, each season follows a running narrative thread (like Vince’s pursuit of the next project) that generates suspense between episodes and rewards the audience for regularly tuning in. Second, the series’ spot-on writing makes viewers feel privy to Tinseltown dish without the icky sensation of shame they might get from watching a half-hour of Access Hollywood. And third, Entourage‘s depiction of the delicate symbiotic relationship between the talent and their support staff is often perceptive and revealing, elevating the series above pure fantasy or self-parody.

The first season of the show tracked Vince’s casting in an indie project called Queens Boulevard, and the second followed the touch-and-go brokering of his lucrative Aquaman deal. The third season began with the premiere of that film, which is poised to be the biggest of the year. Season Three’s “One Day in the Valley” gave the audience a peek into how nerve-wracking the opening day of a blockbuster can be, when the initial box-office numbers can make or break it.

To bolster their inside take on Hollywood, the writers use masterful name-dropping and inspired star cameos. In “One Day in the Valley,” we learn that Drama, a Harley man, had to hock his bike to Michael Madsen during a particularly lean period. Drama’s beefs with other actors has been a running gag from the outset, as we learn that he’s locked horns with Ralph Macchio, Paulie Shore, and Brooke Shields. Last year Bob Saget portrayed himself as a weed-smoking skirt-chaser who cockblocked Drama at a high-class brothel, and in Season Three’s “Aquamom,” Drama stole premiere tickets from under the nose of a penny-pinching James Woods. These Entourage stints offer actors (many on the downslide of fame) a chance to poke fun at their images while showing they’re self-aware enough to be in on the joke (unlike Johnny Drama, who certainly wouldn’t be). But they also give the audience a fascinating glimpse of how celebrities may relate to each other when the cameras aren’t rolling.

Drama is currently without representation (natch), so between auditions he serves as Vince’s personal chef and trainer. Vince’s other buddies from home also work for him: Eric (Kevin Connolly) is his manager, and Turtle (Jerry Ferrara) his driver. (The characters are based on executive producer Mark Wahlberg’s own entourage). Vince’s team is rounded out by his agent Ari (played by Jeremy Piven as a ticking time bomb in a $5000 suit) and publicist Shauna (the terrific Debbie Mazar). In its first two seasons, Entourage made it clear that it takes a village to raise a movie star and that Vince’s talent and charisma are only part of the equation. Because the livelihood of Vince’s team is directly tied to his success, his relationship with the members of the entourage is often fraught with ambivalence and tension. When Vince’s rocky romance with Aquaman costar Mandy Moore (playing herself) threatened to sink the movie’s production in Season Two, Eric was caught between his competing roles as Vince’s best friend and manager, and the future of everyone was at stake.

No one knew this better than Vince’s agent Ari, the most Hollywood character on the show. Though he was ousted from his agency last season, he’s back in the game now, still delivering the most outrageous lines. In “Aquamom,” he pressured Vince to take a beautiful woman with him to the Aquaman premiere. Everyone knew Vince had been sleeping with half the ladies in Hollywood since Moore broke his heart, so Ari told him, “Just pick the one skank that’s going to photograph well on the red carpet.”

Despite Ari’s profanity-laced bluster, Entourage never devolves into the crushing cynicism and self-loathing of other Hollywood-based shows, like the The Comeback (also produced by HBO), mainly because of the camaraderie among the four lead characters. Vince, Drama, Eric, and Turtle have been pals since childhood, and their familiarity adds a surprising degree of warmth to the sometimes raunchy proceedings. Their working-class Queens roots also serve as a marker of their authenticity among the image-obsessed L.A. phonies; though the boys are not immune to the trappings of fame and fortune, they still know a slice of genuine New York pizza when they eat one.

Entourage has been likened to Sex and the City (it too is about four urban singles on the prowl), but the comparison is wanting. The ladies on that show existed in some kind of hermetically sealed hot-pink bubble: their parents, siblings, and childhood friends were rarely mentioned and almost never seen. The shared come from nothing history of Vince and his crew enriches the characters and ups the stakes of the star’s success. Though the boys enjoy a lifestyle that is glamorous beyond comprehension, they always remain sympathetic, even lovable.

And so the woman Vince decided to invite to the big Aquaman premiere was not a photogenic It Girl, but his mother (Mercedes Ruehl). Although Mrs. Chase was afraid to fly, Vince persuaded her over the airwaves of a radio show to visit him in California. As Vince’s acerbic publicist Shauna listened, she commented, “This is some moving shit.” Entourage is mainly out to make you laugh, but like any good Hollywood agent, it knows when to add a little sugar to sweeten the deal.

RATING 7 / 10