How To Make It In America

Posted on February 18, 2010


After seeing ads for How to Make it in America in subway stations all over NYC for the past two months, I was sick of the show before it even began, but then I found out Kid Cudi (real name Scott Mescudi) was in it, and that helped. It also helped that HBO released a sweet mixtape online a few days before, produced by Cudi and DJ Green Lantern, full of songs from the show and remixes, plus audio samplings of actors from the show discussing the story elements. Download that mixtape.

I think it was also a really smart marketing ploy by HBO to leak the pilot on YouTube. People started watching it hurriedly because they figured it would get taken down any minute for copyright claims until they realized HBO had put it up themselves and approved of it. Then people could calm down, share the link, tweet about it at their leisure, all of this adding to the buzz. HBO probably also hoped that some people would see the YouTube vid and then watch the episode a second time when it premiered Sunday night.

To get to the show: I liked it. I really like the opening music, “I Need a Dollar” by Aloe Blacc.

I think Entourage comparisons are only natural, and they’re fair due to the exec producing team (specifically Wahlberg’s involvement) and hip-hop, but really the shows are very different. In fact, How to Make It is more hip, in many ways, and not merely because it’s younger. Where Entourage focuses on a group of guys who, with some exceptions during “tough times” for Vince, are living large. Cam and Ben are automatically more interesting because they’re scheming to make a few bucks all the time, and Ben has to work a shitty retail job at Barney’s servicing guys like Kaplan, played by Eddie Kaye Thomas (American Pie‘s Finch). By the way, I’ve seen reviews moaning that he’s annoying, but I’d argue that’s the point of the character, so Thomas plays him well. In addition, so many young guys who played an instantly recognizable role in some classic teen movie will always be known for that and can’t really escape it. Think of the skinny white kid from Road Trip or Jason Biggs– in other movies, they always seem like they’re playing the same characters. Not the case here with Thomas– in AP, Finch was quiet, weird, awkward. Kaplan is a dork, sure, but an outgoing, showy dork. And I’d say it works. But enough about him.

The show has its problems, but so far they’re pretty minor. Granted, there’s only been one episode on which to judge. First of all, I have to wonder if the show understands who their protagonist is? Ben is the obvious answer, but from what I can tell it’s Cam who provides all of the show’s excitement and energy. Ben is sort of inactive– not just literally but even in his body language and attitude. Watch him throughout the scenes: he lazily stands around in the art studio with Ginger, lazily slumps against the table while folding jeans at Barney’s (what does Cam do for money, by the way, where’s his crappy-wage job?), splays out on the couch at Ginger’s friend’s place, leans against the wall outside as they sell the leather jackets. Cam, on the other hand, is always doing something. He weaves in and out of people at the art show, greeting and mingling, while Ben sad sacks his way over to Rachel and her new boyfriend. Cam picks up Ben in the car and rushes them to the docks. He runs from the cop when their jacket gig is interrupted. So far, it’s Cam (Victor Rasuk) who makes the show fun.

Meanwhile, is Kid Cudi going to have a role in this thing or what? Cudder spoke just twice in the episode. HBO must realize, I hope, that a huge audience they’re pulling in is hip-hop heads watching because they like Cudi. So he better get more screen time soon. As for the other major side character, Rene, what can I say? Luis Guzman is great in the role. And I love when he makes the boys try that Jamaican energy drink at the end when they’ve just repaid him.

On women: Here’s where the show might run into problems. Entourage has, over time, become infamous for being a show women hate themselves for liking. It’s stylish and exciting, but it’s a show about guys for guys, and chicks are the side dish and get treated as such. How to Make It wasn’t quite as bad, but the girl I watched with did note right away how weak the women came across. Shannyn Sossamon’s Ginger was an obnoxious, grating cliche (and normally I like her, she was great in Rules of Attraction), reminding her friends haughtily that she’s too self-righteous to take money from her rich daddy. Ginger’s friend was a typical New York City stereotype (Anna from The OC playing the same character she played during her five-episode arc in Entourage), though it’s true that girls like that exist and are everywhere. And Rachel has some potential but for now was given nothing interesting to say or do. That being said, I think people are often too quick to indict guys’ shows for chauvinism, and though I noticed the Ginger problem and hated her right away, the other issues didn’t come across as much to me, and I wouldn’t have really devoted a graph to this point if the female I happened to watch with didn’t make the complaint so vocally.

One more small gripe: It’s implausible that Ben would wander over to Rachel’s apartment drunk and humiliate himself like that. Only fifteen minutes earlier in the episode we see Ginger chiding him for avoiding Rachel; we get the impression he completely goes out of his way now to miss seeing her, and that when he greets her at the art show it’s only because she spots him, they make eye contact, and he knows he has to walk over to be polite. How can we like him as a character if he’s so pathetic?

Almost always, though, the show is dead-on in its depiction of NYC. Ben tries to sleep in on a weekend, Cam rouses him excitedly; Ben and Cam have a friend who’s trying to scam people into paying high prices for his artsy b&w photographs, it’s all very LES Manhattan. Sure, there are unrealistic moments (like these two kids who are just scraping by would really go out to Avenue at night?), and occasional bad dialogue (Ben tells the kid on the subway that his unoriginal, hipster-typical Nike retro kicks are “about respect,” really?) but there is also some very real dialogue. Kaplan bragging of his hedge fund,”We’ve still got a few pesos to play around with,” that was terrific and reminds us all of some Wall Street dick we know. Or when Ginger says about her friend, “She writes for Nylon… she’ll definitely have sex with you.” Too true.

I’m going to keep watching this one, and I’m pumped to do it. Trying to get all my friends into it as well. Let’s see where HBO takes it from here.

[UPDATE, 2/20]

Okay, saw the write-up on New York mag’s Vulture blog, and I just have to promote this reader comment from a user called HarveyCorwin:

My big problem with the show was that everyone was too clean and healthy looking for me to buy them as real New York Hipsters. The men are supposed to the too skinny, but with a little pot belly and newly forming man-boobs (“ET Body”, as it were) and the girls are supposed to be pretty, not nearly that polished. I know that it’s TV and HBO would never let their stars go on like that, but as a New Yorker, it is very distracting.

Hilarious. And I agree with this person’s description of most NYC hipster guys. But I will just say in the show’s defense that I actually don’t think any of the main characters we’ve seen so far are very attractive. I mean, they are, but they’re not beautiful the way Entourage actors are (ahem, Sloan). Ben and Cam are good-looking, but not model level, certainly not Adrian Grenier level (in other words, ‘hawt’ enough to get a main role in a show even when you can’t act). And the main girls (Sossamon and Lake Bell) aren’t so hot at all. So okay, indict the show for being ‘unrealistic’ about some things, but not for having overly attractive characters.

[UPDATE, 2/24]

Now that I’ve seen the second episode, feel the need to follow up with some more comments. I want to discuss whether any of the minor problems I had with the show were addressed. No, rest assured, I will not be blogging about every single episode of this show.

First of all, did I mention last time how much I like the opening sequence? Really perfect, both the music and the photographs.

Let me take you through my reactions as I watched.

‘Crisp’ seems like a solid name for Ben and Cam’s jean line. I wish I had thought of naming something that.

I find it hard to believe Ben was in fashion school. I won’t explain my skepticism any further, though, because I think the reasons for my disbelief are probably offensive.

The TV critics that have been kissing Luis Guzman’s ass are right; Rene is great. Love when he tries to push Rasta Monsta on the minister.

A little too dramatic for me when Ben walks out on dinner with Rachel. Was that really necessary? Again I wonder if the show is trying to set him up as this show’s E from Entourage, but if so it isn’t working because Ben, so far at least, in his dealings with Rachel, seems pretty spineless. E is a girlfriend guy, sure, and he gets whipped real quickly, but he’s still his own man.

Just in sheer terms of visual look, there’s a terrific shot at 14:40 of Cam and Ben sitting inside the window of a pizza shop, eating. It should be the poster for the show, or first season DVD cover image.

As for the scene in which the boys meet John Varvatos, I was beginning to think it was far-fetched until they sit down to “join him for a drink” and then end up alone at the end of the table, ignored. That’s more like it, more realistic. And Cam’s toast, damn. Cringe-inducing, as hilariously awkward as any Johnny Drama moment (remember the episode when he throws up on stage at the girl’s Bat Mitzvah?).

And, finally, the show stays tough on its heroes, at least for now. Their letdown (wake-up call?) at the John Varvatos studio was plausible. They’re clueless, they have no idea what they’re doing, and we love them for it.

So, to quote Cam right before he and Ben get hosed and find the gym is a meat locker, not a jeans factory: “Are you feelin it? No, you feelin it???” I mostly am, for now.

Posted in: DBR Blog