How to Make It in America: The Complete First Season
HBO // Unrated // $49.99 // September 27, 2011
Review by William Harrison | posted September 20, 2011
R E P L A Y
A D V I C E
Highly Recommended
E - M A I L
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R E V I E W S
Graphical Version

THE SHOW:

HBO does many things well, but nailing the vibe of a particular locale is the network's specialty. Treme celebrates an on-the-mend New Orleans, Entourage makes Los Angeles look both soulful and soulless, and The Wire may make you think twice about moving to Baltimore. HBO already covered New York City in Sex and the City, but the five-borough paradise is ripe for further exploration in How to Make It in America: The Complete First Season. The show follows a group of young entrepreneurs trying to break into New York City's fashion scene, and it receives a healthy dose of HBO's solid production values. How to Make It in America is involving despite a relaxed pace thanks to its feel-good vibe, excellent soundtrack and endearing characters.

Ben Epstein (Bryan Greenberg) and Cam Calderon (Victor Rasuk) get stuck with a bunch of useless skateboard decks after their sketchy sponsor Wilfredo Gomez flakes. Ben works at Barneys to pay his rent, and is still not over his recent break-up with girlfriend Rachel (Lake Bell). Cam refuses to work "for the man," and continues to look for new business opportunities while avoiding his recently paroled uncle Rene (Luis Guzmán). Ben and Cam decide to start a jeans line called Crisp, and, with the help of their rich buddy Kappo (Eddie Kaye Thomas), begin looking for manufacturers to create a template. But getting noticed in New York City is not easy, and Ben and Cam face much resistance.

I popped in the first disc of How to Make It in America: The Complete First Season expecting to be greeted with an East Coast Entourage (Mark Wahlberg is the executive producer on both shows), but what I got was something less comedic and slightly more weighty. While the show is occasionally funny, it is definitely not a comedy, and if Entourage is about living to excess, then How to Make It in America is about scraping by. I also wasn't sure what to make of Ben and Cam's business at first, as fashion seemed like a strange endeavor, but the show's creators target the industry from paths not generally taken. Instead of landing on runways and in Manhattan fashion houses, the show ventures to the galleries, thrift stores and supply warehouses that litter the city in order to provide Ben and Cam with a decidedly unglamorous working environment.

Ben is a likable guy spinning his wheels, and his low-paying retail job is less about laziness than a lack of direction. Cam is the confidence-boosting friend that constantly reminds Ben how attractive and successful he can be, even when he does not recognize his potential. Cam is actually a bit grating during the first few episodes, but at some point during the third or fourth episode, I found myself appreciating his infallible optimism. At first Rachel seems like a disposable snob who broke Ben's heart and ran, but her character turns out to be more complex. Ben and Cam kind of hate hanging out with Kappo, who made millions investing on Wall Street, because he is awkward and embarrassing, but the three bond during a night of shots and dancing downtown. Two-time felon Rene struggles to start his own legitimate business without hitting strike three, and winds up pushing a ridiculous energy drink called Rasta-Monsta. Cam is supposed to be scared of Rene, but the character is never particularly intimidating. Also on board are Rachel's new beau Darren (Jason Pendergraft), who may be too nice, and her business partner Edie (Martha Plimpton), who struggles to keep Rachel from sprinting.

How to Make It in America bounces around the city with ease, dropping in on the local nightlife, Rachel's interior design business and minor characters Gingy (Shannon Sossamon), who deals art and hosts gallery parties, and Domingo (Scott "Kid Cudi" Mescudi), who parties and smokes a lot of weed. The show never hides the hurdles of living in the sprawl, but it makes New York City look like the coolest place on earth. Still frames of street life and split-screen imagery are often used to capture the city's character, and the soundtrack is excellent. I particularly like the show's theme, "I Need a Dollar" by Aloe Blacc, which sounds retro but was released in 2010.

The first season of How to Make It in America is comprised of only eight, 30-minute episodes, which barely allows the characters to find their groove. I look forward to next season, as the last couple of season-one episodes really get the plot moving, and some big things are on tap for Ben, Cam and Rachel. How to Make It in American is an enjoyable, upbeat drama and another winner from HBO.

EPISODES:

  • Episode 1 - Pilot - Ben and Cam's skateboard decks fail to sell, and the guys decide to ask Rene for more money to buy Japanese denim instead of repaying the $3,000 they owe him.
  • Episode 2 - Crisp - Ben and Cam search for a manufacturer to create their Crisp jeans, while Rene struggles to market his energy drink.
  • Episode 3 - Paper, Denim + Dollars - Rachel re-evaluates her life after talking with a friend in the Peace Corps, and Ben and Cam balk at the cash required to get a jean sample made.
  • Episode 4 - Unhappy Birthday - Rachel accidentally invites both Ben and Darren to her birthday party, and the guys take Kappo out clubbing.
  • Episode 5 - Big in Japan - Ben and Cam's jean sample is a bust, but a Japanese designer asks Ben to recreate his vintage t-shirt. Rene tries to find a bag of cash he stashed before going to jail but comes up empty-handed.
  • Episode 6 - Good Vintage - Vintage t-shirts are hard to come by for Ben and Cam, and Rachel and Darren decide to take Ecstasy to mixed results.
  • Episode 7 - Keep on Truck'n - Rene's Rasta-Monsta truck is stolen while in Ben and Cam's possession, and Rachel cools when Darren offers her the chance to decorate his hotel.
  • Episode 8 - Never Say Die - Cam struggles to locate his missing t-shirts, Rachel weighs her love and career options, and Ben runs into elusive skateboarder Wilfredo Gomez.

THE BLU-RAY:

PICTURE:

HBO's How to Make It in America: The Complete First Season looks stellar on Blu-ray. Each episode receives a 1.78:1/1080p/AVC-encoded transfer on a BD-50 disc. Detail is exceptional, and each scene is crystal clear. Depth is impressive, as is texture, and every skyscraper, speeding taxi and denim sample benefits from the high-definition treatment. How to Make It in America is a good-looking show, and colors are bold and explode from the screen without ever bleeding. Skin tones are spot-on, and blacks are never more than a touch lighter than reference. I noticed no compression issues, very minimal aliasing and no excessive noise.

SOUND:

The show's 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks are also impressive. Dialogue is perfectly balanced and accurately presented. Directional dialogue and ambient effects are common, and the surrounds buzz with the sounds of New York City. The show's musical soundtrack is consistently excellent, and each song is perfectly mixed around or under the dialogue and effects. French and Castilian Spanish DTS 5.1 tracks and a Latin American Spanish 2.0 DTS track are also included. The show comes with a host of subtitle options: English SDH, French, Latin American Spanish, Castilian Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese, Dutch, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian and Swedish.

PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:

HBO packages How to Make It in America in a two-disc digipack adorned with images from the show and of New York City, as well as a list of the episodes and bonus features. The digipack fits into a sturdy outer slipbox. The first four episodes are on disc one, while the remaining four episodes and bonus features are on disc two.

Extras include multiple commentaries from the cast and crew. Commentary is available for episodes 1, 4, 5 and 8, and participants include Bryan Greenberg, creator/executive producer Ian Edelman and producer Rob Weiss. The Get By: Making it on the Streets of NYC (18:38/HD) is an interesting piece about the professional skateboarders who make a living on the streets of New York City. The Legend of Wilfredo Gomez (9:47/HD) features interviews with the few fortunate enough to catch the fabled skateboarder and "terrible person" in action. A short reel of deleted scenes (5:55/HD) provides no context as to where these scenes would have fallen in the series. The best extra is Hustle Stories (24:15/HD), a series of short behind-the-scenes snippets about the show's cast, crew and New York City muses. I enjoyed these interviews a lot, as it is clear that the show's creators went to great lengths to make How to Make It in America authentic.

FINAL THOUGHTS:

It is difficult to find the almighty dollar in New York City, especially when you decide to jump onto the fashion scene by creating a custom denim line. How to Make It in America: The Complete First Season follows buddies Ben and Cam as they attempt to make it big in the city with the help of their friends. HBO again finds the soul of New York City through its talented cast of twenty-something actors, and How to Make It in America is a warm, entertaining look at life in the famed city. HBO's Blu-ray for the show features excellent picture and sound and some nice extra features. Highly Recommended.



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