How to Make it in America was the too soon before it’s time HBO dramedy that could have been a voice of a generation. It could have been the zeitgeist of what it meant to be a millennial. How to Make it premiered on HBO in 2010 and was canceled after the second season in 2012. It’s one of those shows that people caught on to a bit late and there has been consistent talk of a revival. In this post I’ll make an attempt at being a critic and highlight what I think the show did really well and where it could have been better. If you are looking for things I might usually write then check out a satire on expensive t-shirts, a dream where I thought I was British, and a missed connection in a Brooklyn park.
How to Make it in America does two things really well.
No matter how successful we might be in the eyes of our peers we still feel like we are missing out or that there is something missing. The cast of the show was an ensemble of great actors and actresses and they all represented a spectrum of people who work in New York. Ben (Greenberg) works in retail, Cam (Rasuk) does side gigs, Domingo (Mescudi) walks dogs and sells weed, Rachel (Bell) is a designer, David (Thomas) is a wall street guy, and Rene (Guzman) is a reformed felon trying to start a business.
Ben and Cam want to make things happen for themselves instead of watching it happen to all their friends. Rachel thinks that there is more to life than designing furniture and pillows for tiny apartments and getting cajoled by her rich Hotelier boyfriend. David Kaplan has plenty of money, but wishes he could tap into the cool ambiance that comes so easily to the rest of the cast.
In season 2 when Ben and Cam seem to be on the cusp of breaking out their potential partner is also trying to finally make a name for himself on Ben and Cam’s originality. As Yosi says in the clip below, “When you’re young you have ideas and no money. And when you are old you have money, but no ideas.” Yosi wants to take over Crisp and also take over the fashion world and put Ben and Cam in the backseat while he does it.
Rachel has a great job, career driven boyfriend, and a multitude of things going for her in season 1 quits to go travel the world for awhile. She comes back in season 2 with the “Oh shit, I have to get a job moment,” but still has enough money to afford an apartment on her own in Brooklyn. She lands another job that seems like it should be a dream job, but realizes that writing about scissors and turkey basters isn’t for her. Maybe she realizes that designing apartments and writing about scissors is unauthentic.
Rachel get’s caught up halfway through the second season with the Neanderthals and is romanced by their authentic lifestyle of what everyone else in the United States would say, “Hipster.” But those with a keen eye would recognize that the Neanderthal leader Tim started off as a burgenouing photographer in the first season. By the second season Tim is living in Bushwick making pickles and ends up selling leather jackets by the end of season 2. If there was a season 3 I think Rachel once again realizes that the Neanderthals are not the authenticity she is seeking and she is left looking for her own thing.
Throughout the run of the show How to Make it in America does an amazing job with vibe, feel, cinematography, and locations. The vibe starts off strong with one of the best intro scenes: a desperate song about needing a dollar laid over a collection of video and still frame photography by Boogie.
Follow this intro up with some really excellent establishing shots:
Then in addition to the camera work the music selection is fire. The below clip has two great songs.
The music was eclectic and it helped set off the vibe. Some select tracks are listed below:
Bam Bam by Sister Nancy
Payback by James Brown
Comadi by Ceu
The Highroad by Broken Bells
These Arms of Mine by Otis Redding
Where How To Make it in America Stumbles
Characters with whom we cannot relate.
Full utilization of the ensemble cast that was assembled was underwhelming in season 1 and only becomes tepid in season 2. Kid Cudi is in season 1, but we barely know anything except that he always has a random dog with him and he hangs out with hot girls.
David Kaplan played by the on point Eddie Kaye Thomas is really just there as a person to loan Ben and Cam some money so they can invest it in their clothing line. David doesn’t really get anything meaty until season 2 and even then it’s all very plot driven with insider trading. Show us what it’s like in David’s office. Maybe a mind numbing scene with some analyst showing off pivot tables on a projector and how the plunging price of wheat is going to affect global milk prices and how they need to change their position to long. Give us a reason to care more about the other characters.
Perhaps the most famous misstep was the utilization of Gingy played by Shannon Sossamon in season 1. She is really there so Ben and Cam can use her car and so she can provide a backdrop with her art gallery. She gets a few scenes, but what could have been interesting is the use of her story as a foil to the other plots of struggle. Have Gingy be the successful friend who has somehow figured things out or at least seems to have everything figured out. LuLu Dee sort of fulfills this role in the second season, but we barely get to see her aside from her short conversations with Rachel and Cam.
HBO Was the Wrong Network.
When people tune into HBO they are usually expecting explicit content like gratuitous sex scenes such as in Entourage, True Blood, or intense action and violence like in Game of Thrones. The first season barely has anything edgy and it was probably a letdown for a lot of viewers. The second season tries to amp things up and it works to an extent, but the sex scenes seem forced and kind of awkward. Rene turning back to his original tricks and performing kidnaps and blackmails was really fun, but if it happened in the first season there might have been a different reception to the show.
I don’t think that the show needed any sort of nudity or graphic sex scenes. It was fine without those things and it would have probably benefited from an additional 10–15 minutes of screen time if it played on a more widely viewed network like USA or AMC. I thought the writing of the show was good perhaps even realistic at times.
So while the show kicks ass at portraying the struggle and vibes it’s difficult for the show to provide any sort of pace to a riveting plot. It’s character driven, but it doesn’t have enough time to develop all of the characters and make us care about all of them.
The reason why Entourage worked for in the half hour was because there were only 5 main characters. Sex and the City required the audience to care about 4 main characters. Girls is about 4 main characters. How to Make it in America asks us to care about at least 6 people.
There was no way HBO was going to give How to Make it in America a full hour slot and with 8 episode seasons it’s hard to make progress on any sort of narrative arc.
So if Ian Edelman reads this know it comes from love of your show. I hope you get season 3 made somewhere.
I don’t normally branch into critical reviews or non-fiction, but I get urge to do so sometimes. If you enjoyed it please let me know and give me a follow. I appreciate anyone who read to the end. You can see more of my stuff here.