HBO has already introduced us to rich mobsters, a shoe-obsessed sex columnist, and an A-list actor and his clingy entourage.
Now the network is downsizing with a series about two New York buds desperate to join the ranks of the rich and famous.
How to Make It in America, debuting tonight at 10 p.m. EST, is like a stripped-down, East Coast Entourage — on the surface. But the drama has miles to go before it digests as easily as Vince and his West Coast groupies.
Ben (Bryan Greenberg) and Cam (Victor Rasuk from Raising Victor Vargas) are just scraping by on New York’s mean streets. Neither wants to climb the corporate ladder, but both want the power to be had at the top rung.
So they try one Ralph Kramden-style scheme after another, from hawking stolen leather jackets to peddling skateboards emblazoned with the image of a no-name local legend. They skirt the law with alacrity but aren’t devious enough to fully exploit the system.
They eventually settle on creating a new line of designer jeans, a theme which should carry the show through its initial eight-episode run.
Just don’t tell them they don’t know the first thing about the garment industry, or business planning, or anything else that can make their project succeed. They’re just young and naive enough to cling to a dream that has precious little chance of becoming reality.
But isn’t that what the entrepreneurial spirit is all about?
Ben remains an optimist despite one setback after another, and he’s constantly distracted by Rachel (Lake Bell), his ex-girlfriend who reminds him that his dreams remain deferred. It’s one of several tired subplots which drag the show’s potential downward.
There’s still ripe material to found in America, but the show isn’t sure how to tap it. The ebb and flow of the main characters’ money schemes aren’t nearly isn’t intriguing as it should be, and Greenberg struggles to sell his character’s inner turmoil.
Rasuk fares better, especially when he dials down his hip-hop inflections around his smothering grandmother.
The fine supporting cast needs no tinkering. Martha Plimpton shines as Rachel’s feisty boss, while American Pie’s Eddie Kaye Thomas turns a potentially lame stereotype, that of the young, obscenely rich New Yorker, into a nerd to be admired.
Best of all, character actor extraordinaire Luis Guzman is cast as Cam’s crooked cousin, a man fresh out of prison with a plan to stay on the straight and narrow. He’s bought a stake in a new energy drink that no one knows anything about.
It’ll be fascinating to watch a recovering thug work within the system to find his own success story.
Naturally, the gap between the haves and have-nots is intense in the Big Apple. But while the main characters here see corporate types as sellouts, they also buy into the American dream. They just tell it through the prism of their life experiences.
This isn’t about two Americas; it’s about the hoops citizens jump through to pass from one to the other.
The show offers the New York melting pot at is lowest bubbling point. All races and creeds come together here, from Rachel’s work posse to Ben and Cam’s extended network of buds. And the authenticity of the city sequences is pitch perfect. This isn’t a glamorized New York, but there’s something affectionate about the way the series honors the city’s flaws.
Those wary of political cheap shots or sucker punches will be pleased to find none here, at least so far. Audiences can read their own messages into the evolving story, but there’s little that jumps off the screen as a polemic broadside. In one episode, Ben’s father casually tells his son he’s reading an Al Gore book and bemoans the state of the environment. “That’s propaganda,” Ben mumbles back, and the issue is dropped.
Comparisons to Entourage are inevitable … and mostly ill-informed. Yet the fourth episode in the series does bear a whiff of that show’s bromantic vibe. And it’s the best of the four installments shared with the press. Should How to Make It in America continue in that vein, letting the working poor manage to temporary lead the lives they think they should, the series will find its niche.
But Entourage, even in its current overextended state, still has more comic firepower and West Coast cameos to justify its place on the HBO schedule.
How to Make It in America can’t yet make such a claim.