TV Review: HBO's 'How to Make It in America'
Lots of style and atmosphere, but little comedy or drama in this 'Urban Outfitters: The Series'
Although Bryan Greenberg and Victor Rasuk are its leading men, the breakout star of HBO's "How to Make It in America" is likely to be Aloe Blacc. The younger rapper-singer-songwriter is responsible for the criminally infectious "I Need a Dollar," which plays over the show's stylish and thematically illuminating opening credits. If there's any justice, this is gonna propel Blacc to a Talib Kweli/Mos Def level of visibility or, at the least, let him make a few cents off of "I Need a Dollar" downloads on iTunes.
I'm a bit cult-y about the "How to Make It in America" credits, which I watched straight through on each of the four episodes HBO sent out and then went back and rewound several times just for fun. Using still photos and documentary footage -- no actual shots or images from the show -- the credits establish New York City in all of its racial and economic diversity, from the diamond merchants to the hot dog vendors to the street buckers and the Wall Street mavens. It establishes the nightlife, the street culture and the public art that are the city's cultural life's blood, showcasing the it's many faces. You've got food, booze and Gotham spirit and it all ends with the Statue of Liberty because, darnit, this is a show about the American Dream.
There is a flavor and texture to the opening credits of "How to Make It in America" that carries through into the series itself. Unfortunately, beyond that flavor and texture, "How to Make It in America" doesn't offer all that much substance. A loose and affectless (but not devoid-of-charm) half-hour, "How to Make It in America" is either a mostly laugh-less comedy, or an entirely stakes-free drama, so while it isn't hard to sit through, it's also unlikely to become mandatory viewing.
[Full review of "How to Make It in America" after the break...]
While "How to Make It in America" is created by Ian Edelman, it comes from much of the creative team behind "Entourage," including producers Mark Wahlberg, Rob Weiss and Stephen Levinson, plus producing director Julian Farino and calling it a lower income "Entourage NYC" wouldn't be entirely inappropriate. Not all stories about young guys just trying to have fun, get laid and make it in the big city are alike, but "Entourage" and "HTMIIA" are cut from a similar cloth (pun, as you'll see, intended).
Our heroes are Ben (Bryan Greenberg) and Cam (Victor Rasuk) a pair of just-scraping-by wannabe hipsters with Big Dreams. What are those Big Dreams? Well, they're not big enough for them to be revealed in the first episode. By Episode Two, we learn that what Ben and Cam really want to do is start a denim line, specifically Crisp NYC, blue jeans inspired by the personality of the '70s. Ummm... OK. And what, pray tell, does it take to start a denim line? The joke is that as clueless as viewers may be about the process required to get your jeans out in the marketplace, Ben and Cam are every bit as clueless. They have an idea, but no sense of execution and only a modicum of motivation, so the incremental progress they make is spread pretty thin through the four episodes I've seen.
Just as "Entourage" has always been coy about whether or not Vincent Chase is actually a talented actor, "HTMIIM" isn't ready to commit to whether or not Ben and Cam are gifted designers/businessmen or if they're just scrappy hustlers. And why does it matter? They seem like such likable guys, isn't that enough? That's enough, I guess, to mean that viewers won't feel put-upon to spend 25 minutes with them every week, to go to clubs with them, to grab a slice of pizza with them, to attend art gallery openings with them. Do we want them to succeed or worry at all about their chances of failure? Nah. I don't care if Ben can pay his rent or if Cam gets a ticket from the police for hawking [stolen] jackets without a vendor's license and nobody else will either. Like I say, it's a show without stakes or goals.
Greenberg and Rasuk are also easy-going actors, but neither is exactly what you'd call overpoweringly charismatic. They're both performers who are content not to upstage New York City as the show's leading character. Rasuk has a bit more energy -- or his character has a bit more flamboyance -- plus I like that he seems to be lending continuity with one of my favorite recent New York movies, the indie classic "Raising Victor Vargas" (and director Peter Sollett's similarly textured "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist"). As for Greenberg, I sortta like that the IMDB doesn't credit HBO's "Unscripted" as an acting role, but says he was playing "Himself." There's a reason I always refer to him as "TV's Bryan Greenberg" and yes, he's probably too old for his role here.
The supporting cast is an eclectic mixture of regulars who don't necessarily appear in every episode and winning guest stars. Luis Guzman is the most memorable of the supporting regulars as Cam's relative, a recently incarcerated gangster who also dreams of going legit with the help of a brand new energy drink. Less likely to be remembered for acting reasons is Kid Cudi, who isn't bad, but definitely isn't high-wattage. Comic relief --And since when should comedies require comic relief? -- comes from Eddie Kaye Thomas as a shamelessly wealthy and shamelessly lame hedge fund manager. Distaff appeal comes courtesy of Lake Bell and Shannyn Sossamon, both attractive afterthoughts, though no more thinly depicted than years of female characters on "Entourage."
[I'd note that some of the people in some of the scenes seem to be presented as actual New York City fashion, art and scenester personalities, but as this isn't a world I have much connection to, I can neither confirm nor deny their identities.]
Because these guys aren't the toast of the town yet, "How to Make It in America" isn't the same kind of wish-fulfillment that used to make "Entourage" so very enjoyable back in the day. It probably presents a version of the New York City life that's perfectly attainable if you aspire to and achieve the same level of "cool" that Ben and Cam reach for. The nuance, atmosphere and sensation of that "cool" is infused throughout "How to Make I in America," often in lieu of storytelling.
That's enough to make it "Urban Outfitters: The Series," not enough to make it consistently good TV.
"How to Make It in America" premieres on HBO on Sunday, February 14 at 10 p.m.
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