How To Make It In America - "Pilot"

How To Make It In America - "Pilot"

How to Make it in America is creeping onto HBO this Sunday with very little fanfare indeed, and the advertising I have seen had me convinced that this was Entourage, but with poor people, the story of Mark Wahlberg’s life if he hustled stolen goods around New York instead of hitting it big in Hollywood because of his rockin' abs.

That perception isn’t entirely wrong. How to Make it has a lot of scenes sets at flashy parties and an irritatingly current soundtrack constantly blaring in the background. The two main characters are hearty bros, and lines like “you wish I was gay, so you'd let me put my dick in your mouth” are bandied about.

But here’s the thing. In the pilot episode, our hero Ben (Bryan Greenberg) hits on this girl, crashes a party she’s at and gets invited back to her place. Only to see her hook up with someone else. He wakes up his ex at three in the morning to try and win her back, but he’s told to buzz off by her new suit-wearing boyfriend. He fails to scam a hedge-fund buddy of his to get $3,000 he owes, and only gets the money when the guy takes pity on him.

It’s amazing what a difference a reality check like this makes. Like a lot of people out there, I enjoyed Entourage at first: all that instant gratification, L.A. as a personal playground, it was fun to watch for a while. But watching a gang of douchebags get what they want every episode got boring pretty quickly. How to Make it, therefore, has decided that what you’re interested in now is seeing the douchebags get rejected at every turn!

Based on the pilot alone, it’s hard to tell whether that’s an improvement or not. How to Make it mostly just coasts by on easy charm. It’s not as in-your-face as Entourage, which I appreciated, but I felt like shaking Ben awake at times, he got so listless. Greenberg, along with most of the ensemble, is one of those blandly appealing guys who floats around in the background of movies like Bride Wars and Prime, supposedly as the romantic interest, but more like an attractive placeholder where a real character never got written.

Also floating around How to Make it are Shannyn Sossamon, Eddie Kaye Thomas, Lake Bell and Samaire Armstrong, all never-quites, 20-somethings who you’ve definitely seen in a movie or a TV show but didn’t graduate to name status. I’m giving co-lead Victor Rasuk, who was damn charming in 2002’s Raising Victor Vargas at the tender age of 18, a pass because he always felt like a real talent lacking another great project. He holds the attention the most in How to Make it, although I’m hoping his character gets a little more developed past “adorable chancer who’s always in sticky situations.”

Rasuk, as Cam, is Ben’s best bud, chasing get-rich-quick schemes, railing against The Man, and getting into debt to his recently-released cousin, played by Luis Guzman, an actor who can do no wrong in my eyes. If Cam’s the personality in this outfit, Ben functions as the brains, bailing Cam out when he gets in hot water and nursing secret, unspecified abilities relating to t-shirt design, or something. He also has an ex-girlfriend who does nothing in the pilot but gets her own story in later eps, and an eye for designer denim, which propels the show’s main arc, such as it is, when he and Cam buy a big roll off the back of a truck to make fancy jeans with.

How to Make it has a few cute lines, some nice location shooting in New York City (I always appreciate actual subway footage) and it’s an inoffensive half-hour long. But I’m not quite sure what it’s aiming for. Is it a fun caper show about Ben and Cam’s adventures trying to hustle their way into the big leagues? Is it a slice-of-life dramedy about the life of chic New Yorkers in their late twenties, plugging along in finance, fashion and high art? Is it something grander, as the title suggests, a cinéma vérité look at the heaving, aspirational underclass of the U.S.? It’s probably not that last thing.

From the way the pilot plays out, and the next couple episodes, it looks like How to Make it is going for a mixture of caper fun and lifestyles-of-the-not-so-rich-and-famous. The premise is thin, and the passion isn’t there yet either, but it’s not entirely devoid of potential. It’s just crying out for a shot in the arm from somewhere.

Stray observations:

The actor I got most excited for was James Ransome, a.k.a. screw-up to end all screw-ups Ziggy Sobotka from The Wire, as hot photographer Tim. I demand he get his own show!

Couldn’t quite tell, but Ben appears to live in Williamsburg, which would be tough to do these days on a Barneys salary, especially in such a pleasant apartment. Is he a trust-fund kid or does he live deeper into the outer boroughs, or should I just not think too hard about it?

I liked the way the kid selling M&Ms on the subway was Ben and Cam’s bud. Just another hustler trying to make a semi-honest buck. They nailed his speech to; every single one of those kids gives the same exact speech, which always had me imagining some Fagin-type guy teaching it to all of them at once.

I liked that when Cam bolted down the street when the fat cop asks about the leather coats, the cop doesn’t give chase. Saved us one of those “fat policeman running!” gags that’s gotten pretty overused.

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