How to Make It in America: Series Premiere

While their friends are creating a stir as designers, gallery owners or photographers, Ben Epstein (Bryan Greenberg) marks time selling Japanese jeans in Barneys and Cam (Victor Rasuk) channels his explosive energy into one dodgy hustle after another. They imagine themselves as comers, but they also know they’re only a few steps away from turning into the slaves to “the man” they so despise.

In How To Make It in America, premiering 14 February on HBO, Ben and Cam are turning their last tricks as entrepreneurs. Haunted by their fast-evaporating high-school cool, they’re succumbing to the ephemeral consolations of drink, sex, and, in Ben’s case, unrequited love. Women provide the lofts and repasts, while errant man-boys live perpetually on the emotional and physical take. Such clichés mean that, despite a razor-sharp script, jazzy direction, and quality acting, How To Make It in America too often seems a Boys Own for the millennial generation. Coming from the creative team behind Entourage, its embedded misogyny is not surprising, but it mars a show that is otherwise unusually inventive.

Like several other recent dramas, How to Make It drops the audience cold into a fast-moving milieu, where dialogue and location whip past so fast that the first 10 minutes resemble a kind of three-dimensional jigsaw, with each new scene forcing a speedy reassessment of exactly what is happening to whom. Characters communicate in sitcom-length fragments, as real friends do, and half-heard ripostes leave the viewer still figuring out the joke after the action has moved on.

Even more impressive, once the show settles into its storyline, the writing remains dry and wry. When Ben’s ex, Rachel (Lake Bell), agonizes over her frivolous job as a designer compared to the work of a college room-mate who’s started a “mobile truck stop condom distribution” scheme in Africa, her boss, Edie (Martha Plimpton) reassures her that any do-gooder with airfare can make a difference in Africa, but Rachel is improving the lives of New Yorkers “300 square feet at a time.”

But even as some members of Ben and Cam’s community demonstrates a narrow vision, others reveal unusual depth, such as an ageing pattern cutter is so aware of his own mortality he has abandoned all long-term commitments, even the buying of green bananas. Cam’s potential dimensions emerge less through what he says and does, but through interactions with his older cousin Rene (a riveting Luis Guzmán), newly released from Sing Sing and brimming with matter-of-fact menace. If Ben and Cam’s plans fail, Cam can’t fall back on the resources of a comfortable middle-class Jewish community as Ben can: his options are Rene, the streets or jail.

While Cam sells hot leather jackets on the street, and loses them to the police, Rene hangs in an “office” stuffed with stolen goods and a multicultural quartet of toughs who count the vig he extorts from the truly desperate (including Cam and Ben, who borrow money from him). Rene’s attempt to go straight involves becoming the tri-state representative of Rasta Monsta, a Jamaican energy drink of which no one has ever heard. His marketing strategy involves putting the screws on aging bodega owners, sponsoring church bingo, and snowing the parish priest. Rene is threatening — and Guzmán is convincing — no matter the situation. When praising Cam and Ben for paying their first week’s interest on time, his every compliment about his “little cousin” conveys his relish in anticipating exactly what he will do to the boys when they inevitably fall short. He knows it, his hangers-on know it, and Ben and Cam know it, too.

As much as the men seem expansive, however, women’s roles are mostly window dressing. Only Edie, gleefully inhabited by the protean Plimpton, emerges as fully formed, snappy, narcissistic, and needy. Amid a bevy of women who cut Ben and Cam all manner of slack, Edie alone is articulate and independent, the sign of a skewed portrait of New York City’s female population.

In fact, the city deserves equal billing with the stars. Despite a fair sprinkling of cheesy street-signs in the chic Lower East Side (actually less edgy in 2010 than the series imagines), the streets provide vivid locations. In one wide shot in Manhattan, Ben and Cam are pushing the roll of premium denim on which they are pinning their latest design scheme in a purloined grocery cart. Just before the sidewalk, the oversized cargo tips out of the cart and the two small figures scurry to rescue it. The camera holds them in a long, low shot that accentuates the size of the buildings and the breadth of the street. No one notices. No one stops. They are just so much low-rent flotsam and jetsam.

This is what How To Make It in America does well: it zeroes in on manifold varieties of male angst and probes them with a loving and sophisticated delight, allied to production values more familiar to movies than to mainstream TV. But the neophyte’s struggle to make it in New York is a pop culture staple, and the series is focus on the loose (and louche) network swinging from loft parties and curbside hustling to monochrome boardrooms and public housing, hardly qualifies as news. One more investigation of the Peter Pan complex seems one too many. In its first episodes, How To Make It delivers a conventional story with uncommon panache. It’s fun, especially for guys, but it’s aiming for boutique liquor and only tastes like high-end latte.

RATING 7 / 10