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Reviewed by Will Harris
hen it comes to making it in America, there’s trying to make a buck, and then there’s trying to make your mark. HBO’s “How to Make It in America” offers a look at both sides of the equation and, perhaps more importantly, reveals how little distance lies between them.
Ben Epstein (Bryan Greenberg) is an amateur designer who’s trying to make the jump to professional with his idea for a new line of jeans, and although his buddy and business partner Cam (Victor Rasuk) doesn’t necessarily have the skills to back Ben up in the field of fashion, he’s got enough gumption and street smarts that he’s ready to do whatever it takes to help get this thing going, even if that means getting a loan from his cousin Rene (Luis Guzman), who’s busy working on his own business endeavor. (Ever heard of an energy drink called Rasta Monsta? No? Don’t worry, it’s only a matter of time.) In addition, Ben’s been hanging out with former schoolmate David Kaplan (Eddie Kaye Thomas), who’s also willing to loan him some scratch, putting Ben and Cam in a position to get their operation off the ground. Well, theoretically, anyway.
But enough about business. Let’s get personal for a minute and discuss the relationship between Ben and his ex-girlfriend, Rachel (Lake Bell), a break-up which has suddenly gotten really real for Ben as a result of the increasing closeness between Rachel and her current boyfriend, Darren (Jason Pendergraft). That Rachel’s in this new relationship would lead one to believe that she’s moved on more successfully than Ben, but as the first season of “How to Make It in America” progresses, it becomes obvious that neither of them is fully over the other.
If watching “How to Make It in America: The Complete First Season” is your first experience with the series, then two things will likely strike you, one following right after the other. The first is the awareness that these eight episodes flow together so well on DVD that the effect is much like watching a slowly unfolding yet consistently enjoyable indie film, one which continues to reward throughout with its gradual study and exploration of each of the characters. The second is the realization that it must’ve been an incredibly frustrating experience to watch this show on a week-by-week basis.
Although watching “The Complete First Season” reveals the slow and laborious process of building a business from scratch, it would not be inconceivable for someone to watch a random episode and leave the proceedings wondering, “So, wait, did anything actually happen?” No, “How to Make It in America” isn’t a show about nothing, but it often moves at such a pace that you’d be forgiven for sometimes thinking that it is. Kudos to HBO, then, for allowing series creator Ian Edelman and his fellow executive producers Rob Weiss and Julian Farino to not only let the first season play out at such a pacing but let them have a second season as well.
Some critics have called “How to Make It in America” an economically-challenged East Coast version of “Entourage,” which is a pretty easy comparison to make when the two share executive producers in Weiss, Farino and the HBO-ubiquitous Mark Wahlberg. If that’s the case, then call me the black sheep critic, because I prefer this take on the concept to its more popular cousin. The relationship between Ben and Rachel is about as realistic as these things get, and in addition to the chemistry between Greenberg and Bell, there’s a lot of other solid, entertaining work in the cast, including the always-dependable Guzman as well as a fun recurring role for Martha Plimpton as Bell’s boss.
No, “How to Make It America” hasn’t made it yet. But after watching “The Complete First Season,” you may find yourself rooting for the long-term success of the series as much as you’re rooting for the success of its characters.
Special Features: First and foremost, the set offers eight audio commentaries, featuring contributions from Edelman, Weiss and Farino, as well as cast members Greenberg, Rasuk, Bell and Guzman. All are entertaining. Beyond the commentaries, there are some deleted scenes, and there’s also a fun featurette called “Hustle Stories,” where the cast and crew discuss their own experiences working their way up the ladder of success. There are also two other featurettes – “The Get By: Making It on the Streets of NYC” and “The Legend of Wilfredo Gomez” – that are ostensibly intended to flesh out the premise of the series with further real-world stories, and they’re both relatively interesting, but their tone is so different from “How to Make It in America” that they feel like they arrived from some other DVD set.