how to make it in america and die trying

December 7th, 2011 by | Tags: ,

I’m really, really fond of Ian Edelman’s How to Make It In America (Amazon VOD at $16 bucks for eight eps or Blu-ray for $22). It’s… not difficult to explain so much as any brief summary won’t really get to the meat of why I enjoy the series. It’s not high concept friendly. Here’s the summary off Amazon, presumably given to them by HBO:

An aspiring designer and his free-spirited best friend plot to achieve the American Dream on their own terms in Season One of this HBO comedy series.

It’s technically accurate, though I’d probably argue against the “free-spirited” bit. Ben Epstein, played by Bryan Greenberg, is certainly an aspiring designer, Cam Calderon, played by Victor Rasuk, is definitely his best friend, and it is a comedy series that comes on HBO. But that’s a bland description for something that’s really more of a fairy tale.

You know how when you’re a kid, your parents told you about growing up? You’d go to college, graduate, and get to do something you liked to make money. You’d date someone who is handsome or beautiful or whatever, and life would just be real cool. The tough times would be dramatic, but doable. You’d be pretty, all your friends would be pretty, and life would be pretty okay as long as you have them. Here’s the cast of How to Make It In America:

Not an ug-mug among them, right? There’s something for everybody, particularly once you break it out to the supporting cast. The result is a cast that’s ethnically pleasing (like Martin Luther King’s dream woke up and took hold of real life by the throat and whispered “or else” in its ear), attractive, and living in the greatest city in the world. They’re all good at something, they have their little careers that let them scrape by, and they go to incredible parties.

I hesitate to call it a soap opera, because the majority of my experience with those was as a child before GI Joe and as an adult while getting my hair braided, but it’s sorta soap opera-y, except you know nothing too bad is going to happen. There’ll be tension and release, tension and release. It’s comforting, in a way that feels very much like a fairy tale. “It’s all going to out. Look, see?”

I’m super into this show, and here’s the bit where I try to explain why.

The Theme Song

The theme song is a version of Aloe Blacc’s “I Need A Dollar.” I loved this thing that my man Jamaal Thomas wrote about the song. It’s a little stripped of context when it’s laid over the show’s opening credits, which actually works out for the better. It lends the song a more universal feel.

I say universal because the song is stripped to its barest essentials. What’s it about? It’s about needing a dollar and needing help. It’s about talking to people. In short, if you look at How to Make It In America as a guide, the opening credits tells you everything you need to know. How do you make it in America? You need dollars and you need people.

How to Make It In America is about people in search of dollars and people. Ben and Cam date, screw up, and date again. They’re trying to get their clothing line off the ground. Rene, played by Luis Guzman, is trying to turn his life around by way of small business. Lake Bell needs to keep her job, but also sorten out her relationship issues. In essence, they’re us. We can relate to the need for money and how good it feels to have people around you.


If you are working in America and trying to maintain a life that includes health insurance and some level of comfort, then the odds are good that you’re hustling. A forty-hour work week is just a starting point. You have side hustles like writing online. You have dream hustles like firing your boss and working for your self. You work because you need money to make anything come true.

But in certain cases, sometimes you work because you believe in it. You put in the extra time and the blood, sweat, and tears that’ll make that gig a success, something you can use as a building block, something that’s fulfilling. A lot of people have creative hobbies. Whether it’s whittling wood or ballet, everyone has something they’re good at and something they’d love to be able to do for a living. That’s just how it is.

In How to Make It, Ben and Cam cover both bases. They need money because they’re tired of not controlling their lives. The one informs the other, feeds into the other, and multiplies the effect. Ben and Cam work hard.


Ben and Cam play hard. One of the best parts of being in your twenties is the fact that people throw house parties. You can talk to incredibly interesting women, get super drunk or high for basically free, and make a whole lot of bad decisions.

In How to Make It In America, these parties are bursts of pretty people doing pretty things while less than sober. You can see glimpses of the goofy and/or stupid things people do at parties, boys desperate to impress girls, and a bunch of sexy young folks generally enjoying life. It’s a fantasy, and a fun one. It’s aspirational. “One day, you could meet a cool chick with a purple mohawk at a party and make out with her while you think no one is looking!” It’s why people watched all those movies in the ’80s about being horny high school or college students. There’s a thrill.

But what’s really cool is how the How to Make It In America gang captured what those nights out feel like once the next day dawns. They’re blurs of motion and strange tastes and things you hope you didn’t actually say aloud. Clarity comes when you get up and check Facebook or Twitter to find snapshot after snapshot of last night’s debauchery. Nowadays, everything gets documented, twitpicced, and tagged, whether you want it to or not. How to Make It In America nails it.

Stay CRISP, Ponyboy

The other thing about How to Make It In America is that it isn’t about the shirts. It’s about the life and trials of Ben and Cam. The shirts are a part of that, sure. They’re a way out. But the show is really about how a little bit of success, or a little bit of any variable, really, changes things. Once you get a taste of hope, you aren’t just going to give it up. You’re going to fight for it.

So we watch as Ben and Cam navigate the streets of New York and try to dodge snakes. Season two features my favorite snake. This character is the type of snake that seems like a blessing, but is actually a wolf in sheep’s clothing. (Metaphor status: a little muddled.) This character is a poisonous influence on one of our two main dudes. The snake preys on his lack of confidence in his talent and lives by the rules of realpolitik.

The problem then becomes figuring out how to stay balanced. Once you get a little bit of something, someone else will want a piece. How do you avoid the snakes without burning your bridges? How do you succeed and still keep your circle sacred?

Basically, how much compromise are you willing to suck down before your dream doesn’t belong to you any more?

Brothers & Sisters, Rebuild Your Lives

Luis Guzm├ín plays Rene Calderon, who the How to Make It In America homepage describes as “once the most feared gangster on the Lower East Side.” He’s an old thug who has finally realized that he can’t sustain that life. So, he’s going to change. He’s bought into a small business and he’s going to try to make money the right way. He wants to find a nice lady to settle down with. He wants a paycheck. He wants to stay out of jail.

Old habits die hard. Push Rene, and you might catch a bad one. “I don’t fucking fight. I shoot.” Try as he might to reign in his former self, his old life was easier and this new life involves eating a whole lot of crow. He has to convince his girl that he’s gone straight, he’s got to dodge prison, and he’s got to make sure his business gains a foothold in the community.

While Ben and Cam are finally trying to invent themselves, Rene is working on reinvention. And changing is hard. You can’t just instantly right your ship. That takes work. That takes drive. Rene is hustling doubletime, and he’s doing it in two areas that are entirely foreign to him.

Everybody Needs Something

Ben is the kind of guy who’s talented, or at least he seems pretty talented, but secretly wonders if he isn’t. He needs that support from friends to keep his confidence up, but at the same time, he’s open to manipulation. He wants to be liked, so he’ll go along with you if you let him.

Cam is in it to win it. He’s down for anything because, frankly, he’s got very little to lose. He’ll holler at girls at parties, fast-talk his way into clubs, and do whatever he’s got to do to make his life one worth living. He can’t live with his grandma forever; that’s just not happening.

Rene is more than ready to fix his problems, and has a concrete plan on how to get the job done, but his nature just leads him toward messing up. He’s got a temper and he’s got a rep, and that rep is one of those things that spikes his temper. He’s different now, he really is, but don’t test him.

David “Kappo” Kaplan just wants to be down. He’s got a high-paying job and a ridiculous apartment, but no girl and no game. He has some cool friends, but he’s a little lost. He wants to be like Ben and Cam.

Rachel has job security, but she has no idea what she wants to be when she grows up. So she dabbles. Journalism here, interior decorating there, and then traveling to Africa out of nowhere. She’s flighty, but that type of flighty that wants to be grounded. She just can’t figure out where she needs to be yet.

Domingo is that guy who’s getting by. He’s happy. He’s real happy, in fact, but his future consists of right now and what party he’s going to tonight. Tomorrow? That’s tomorrow’s problem. But even then, that sort of free-wheeling life only goes so far. Sometimes you need a solid foundation to come home to.

The Music

There’s a lot of music in How to Make It In America, and they post setlists after every episode. I may not like every single track, but this is a show that sounds good, and when it occasionally goes for a pointed song choice, as in Bobby Womack’s sublime “Across 110th Street” or Smif-n-Wessun’s “Sound Bwoy Bureill,” it’s deadly.

New York, New York

I love New York like somebody who grew up hearing about New York loves New York. It’s real, because I’ve been there several times, but it’s still a huge deal. It’s a fantasy of a city. It’s where magic happens and everyone is lovely, rich, or becoming both.

New York is the city, the only city. The only city even remotely on par with it is maybe Paris. (Los Angeles is different.) This is a show that features a lot of NYC. Subway signs, cross streets, brownstones, everything from the mythical NYC is in here.

It’s not Illmatic New York. It’s not a grim and gritty place where foreigners get their green card ripped up. It isn’t Life After Death, either. Nobody’s rich… well, one dude is rich, but he’s a square. There’s nobody dancing in puddles of expensive champagne on a speed boat with a swimming pool. It’s more like A Tribe Called Quest or Camp Lo’s New York, where you’ve got at least one friend or connect of every race, all the girls are real pretty, and you might fall on some hard times, but things are generally pretty okay.

wrap it up, this is over 2000 words already

I didn’t really think of How to Make It In America as a comedy until I saw that description on HBO’s site. It’s funny, yeah, and dramatic. But there’s this thing about it that makes it feel very low-stakes. I mean, these guys are definitely put into do or die situations, but I never really felt like they would collapse under the pressure. They might lose, but they’re not going to be destroyed by that loss.

Which is pretty much why this feels like a fairy tale to me. It’s a little too perfect, and things work out pretty well in the end. That’s far from a complaint–it’s nice to watch and see these guys make their way toward a better life. It’s entertaining and charming in all the right ways.

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4 comments to “how to make it in america and die trying”

  1. What I like about the show is that it captures the feeling of accomplishment. Happy endings are earned. Ben and Cam are lucky at times, but you can’t hate, they’re hustling every step of the way and you clearly see it. You don’t get that with most shows.

  2. “One of the best parts of being in your twenties is the fact that people throw house parties. You can talk to incredibly interesting women, get super drunk or high for basically free, and make a whole lot of bad decisions.”

    Oh. I guess I missed out on all of that.

    I was…watching cartoons, reading comics, and checking out the Internet instead.

    Well. Can’t turn back the clock. Best I can do is um…deal with it through avoidance. Never watching this show so I don’t have to be confronted with this fact face-to-face is a step towards that.

  3. In my experience of New York City, industry achievement depends 70% on having an Ivy League degree and 30% on good looks. So, this show seems convincing enough.

  4. I loved this show. I think Ben perfectly captured the feeling of being 30 with an art school degree and nothing to show for it. All this “talent” don’t pay the bills really. After awhile you get sick of hearing about it. It leads to doubt. I could probably write just as much as you did David about this show (not as well)but you really put up a great post.
    RIP to How to make it

    P.S. this show is really does show life like it is in NYC at times and I only visit now.