'How to Make It in America'

TV Preview: Hank Stuever on HBO's 'How to Make It in America'

NEW YORK, NEW YORK: Bryan Greenberg, left, Victor Rasuk, Scott "Kid Cudi" Mescudi and Eddie Kaye Thomas in "America."
NEW YORK, NEW YORK: Bryan Greenberg, left, Victor Rasuk, Scott "Kid Cudi" Mescudi and Eddie Kaye Thomas in "America." (Eric Liebowitz - HBO)

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By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 14, 2010

HBO's new series, "How to Make It in America," debuts Sunday night, and it's about two guys trying to launch their own brand of designer jeans. But what it's really about is the mysterious alchemy involved in launching an HBO series, trying to please what may be the most discerning and demanding (read: picky) niche audience in the history of television.

I would expect "How to Make It in America" to be greeted by them with something between a yawn or a groan and the easy accusation that the show has been shamelessly cloned from DNA samples of the network's meandering status hit, "Entourage." Some of the same writers and producers are involved, as is the same invisible hand of executive producer Mark Wahlberg.

Truly, it moves the same, acts the same, and is motivated by the same libidinous swagger. Instead of being about young men who've worked their way into the impermeable spheres of glamour and fame in Hollywood ("Entourage"), "How to Make It in America" is about young men working to even get anywhere near the impermeable spheres of glamour and fame in New York.

Instead of the movie business, it's street fashion. Instead of cameos by movie stars and directors playing themselves (Matt Damon, Martin Scorsese), it will have cameos by designers playing themselves (John Varvatos). Instead of sunshine and palm trees, it's gritty skies and the G and L trains.

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"How to Make It in America" takes a few episodes to get properly underway. I've seen the first four and, although each was more compelling than the last, the series contains a repellent amount of hipitude, which distracts from its tale.

The main character is Ben (Bryan Greenberg), a city kid in his late 20s who has disappointed his nice, Jewish parents with his nebulous yearning to become a famous designer -- not in the gayishly productive sense of "Project Runway" contestants, but in a more status-conscious way. Which is to say Ben cannot sketch, cannot sew and knows next to nothing about the garment trade (which, as we know from HBO's recent documentary "Schmatte," doesn't exist anymore). The message here is that to make it in America now, you need to be extremely cool and deceitful. It's about the right club, the right street sense, the right soundtrack, and having your show's opening credits set in Helvetica allcaps, which is the coolest font of all time.

To pay his rent, Ben works as a jeans folder in the men's department at Barneys. Having failed to launch a line of skateboard decks, Ben and his quasi-homeless Puerto Rican friend, Cam (an exuberant Victor Rasuk), hatch a scheme to launch a line of expensive jeans they've labeled "Crisp," which are to be assembled from a stolen roll of Japanese selvage denim they've acquired from the black market.

Complicating things is that they owe money to Cam's thuggish cousin, Rene (the terrific Luis Guzman), who has his own problems with the marketing of a questionable energy drink called Rasta Monsta.

As trendiness goes, the show is the New Yorkiest thing you could find on television, which is saying something, given all the New Yorkiness that audiences must watch each day. It presumes you're something of a sneakerhead as well as a skateboard aficionado, and that you know about selvage denim, or what that even is.

While I admire "How to Make It in America's" portrayal of a dirty, scrappy, multi-ethnic New York culture (this melting pot is really roiling), the show also presumes in its viewers a high threshold for HBO-style criminality and stereotypes: It asks you to accept Ben and Cam's propensity to deal in the black market, to sell knockoff designer leather coats on the street, to borrow money from gangsters. Like the "Entourage" boys, they operate best in a world of lies (and nightclubs), where pretense is all. Ben and Cam's vacuous characters are deepened and made sympathetic only by their reliance on one another. We wind up feeling sad that their dreams are so empty.

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