HBO // 2010 // 240 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // September 19th, 2011
It's definitely not easy to make it these days.
"All I need is a few minutes of your time."
Ben Epstein (Bryan Greenberg, Bride Wars) has a dream: to start his own company and produce his own line of jeans. It's a nice idea, but many have tried and failed to successfully get a denim-based company off the ground. Still, Ben is undeterred by the many naysayers who insist he's wasting his time. With the aid of his best friend Cam Calderon (Victor Rasuk, Raising Victor Vargas), Ben begins his lengthy, obstacle-filled journey to the finish line. Will his business endeavor be a success?
In many ways, How to Make It in America feels like the slightest show HBO is airing at the moment, a thin sketch of a program posing as something considerably more substantial. It takes a while to realize this, as the main title sequence promises a good deal more. It's a terrific 64 seconds, running through a breathtaking montage of evocative New York images to the soulful strains of Aloe Blacc's "I Need a Dollar"; imagine the world's coolest Village Voice photo gallery as scored by a present-day version of Bill Withers. Alas, much like HBO's True Blood, the main title promises a richness the actual show seems incapable of delivering.
In this case, the main title presents a breathtaking snapshot of lower-class life in New York City, from the hungry wannabe rappers to the hot dog stands to the doleful Hasidic Jewish man to the kid riding his skateboard down the street. However, the actual show is considerably narrower in focus, spotlighting the misadventures of some NYC hipsters struggling to make ends meet. "Hey, there's nothing wrong with a show about some NYC hipsters just trying to get by," you may say. I agree with you, but How to Make It in America never allows its characters to escape or transcend the simplistic "NYC hipster" label.
It's never a good sign when a TV show's lead character is a bore, but I'm afraid that's the case here. Ben Epstein is just a quiet, normal guy with unmemorable problems. His only distinguishing trait is his almost fetishistic fondness for blue jeans, but actor Bryan Greenberg successfully manages to ensure that this one real passion feels more like a put-on than a genuine deep-rooted desire. Greenberg is a pretty face, but what else did the showrunners see in him which suggested that he could carry a show? His pal Cam is a good deal more interesting due to Rasuk's engaging performance, but even that character suffers from being given a one-note role (that of the lovable scamp who's always hustling).
How to Make It in America is billed as a comedy, but it delivers fewer laughs than the average episode of CSI. Sure, there are a few cute, smile-inducing moments as these down-on-their-luck scrappers find creative ways to keep their business plan alive or go out on the town for some affordable partying (quite often, the guys feel very much like economically disadvantaged versions of the bros from Entourage, though the alpha male obnoxiousness of those characters is largely traded in for lazy blandness in this program), but this is primarily a slice-of-life drama (minus the insights the phrase "slice-of-life" implies). Again, there's nothing wrong with one genre or another, but the dramatic material here just isn't terribly gripping and there certainly aren't enough laughs to justify the thin nature of the drama.
The most interesting portions of How to Make It in America belong to the characters existing at the fringes of the program. Cam's cousin Rene (Luis Guzman, Carlito's Way) is a compelling figure; an ex-con working on his own business plan (he hopes to introduce America to a new energy drink called "Rasta Monster"). Both Rene and his subplot prove more interesting than the main storyline, even though that saga is given much less screen time. Additionally, Ben's ex-girlfriend (Lake Bell, It's Complicated) is employed by a quirky woman named Edie Weitz (the ever-reliable Martha Plimpton, Raising Hope), who gets a handful of enjoyable moments throughout the season.
How to Make It in America: The Complete First Season looks decent in hi-def, sporting a sturdy 1080p/1.78:1 transfer. Though the series has a verite-style grittiness much of the time, the level of detail is impressive and blacks are quite deep. Save for the occasional fleeting montages the show delivers (including the main title sequence), the series doesn't have much in terms of visual flair and often looks somewhat desaturated, but this two-disc set gets the job done nicely. Audio is also satisfactory, with the plethora of trendy pop tunes piping in with vigor and making the biggest impression. However, this is primarily a dialogue-driven track, and everything sounds clear. Supplements include eight audio commentaries (two each on four episodes, instead of one for each -- how strange), a 19-minute "They Get By: Making It On the Streets of NYC" featurette, a 10-minute "The Legend of Wilfredo Gomez" featurette, a whole host of short, bitty "Hustle Stories" snippets and some deleted scenes.
How to Make It in America falls well short of the standard of excellence set by HBO; it's a listless program which demonstrates poor dramatic instincts and offers precious little humor. It's never aggressively awful, but that's mostly because it doesn't have the ambition to achieve anything better or worse than consistent mediocrity.
Review content copyright © 2011 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (French)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 240 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Episode Commentaries
* Deleted Scenes
* Official Site