In the run-up to its debut last year, How to Make It in America was promoted by HBO as the Mark Wahlberg-produced series about masculinity, loyalty, and preposterous good luck that would eventually replace the aging Mark Wahlberg-produced series about masculinity, loyalty, and preposterous good luck, Entourage. As the first season wore on, however, How to Make It in America became something more than lifestyle porn, more than just Entourage: Brooklyn. Where Entourage conjured a sense of authenticity from gratuitous insider allusions and nonsense celebrity cameos, How to Make It in America manufactured its authenticity with accurate cultural detail and relatively restrained acting. There were no Johnny Dramas, but, with the possible exception of Luis Guzmán’s tenderhearted thug, Rene, there were no cartoons either. If Entourage was a utopian fantasy, How to Make It in America had become a romance rooted in the trappings of cinematic realism. And the songs were way better.
Now in its second season, How to Make It in America is already miles past Entourage as either a genealogical ancestor or a fitting comparison. While childhood best friends, ambitious artist Ben (Bryan Greenberg) and hustling promoter Cam (Victor Rasuk), and their struggling clothing brand are still the narrative center of the show, the second season sees a greater interest in exploring the social lives of late-twentysomethings at various stages of success and maturity. No longer a show about the fashion business, per se, How to Make It in America has become an ethnographic portrait of ambitious, optimistic urbanites who still don’t know what to do with all of their ambition and optimism.
This season, we find Ben’s ex, Rachel (Lake Bell), having returned from a long trip abroad only to stumble into a phenomenal job in journalism. Viewers may initially feel as though they’re hearing the world’s tiniest violin concerto as Rachel bemoans the fact that her highly paid, prestigious work bores her, but Bell, whose comic timing and Diane-Keaton-meets-Buster-Keaton charm ought to have secured her a bigger acting gig by now, doesn’t condescend to her character’s malaise. Like Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture, this show and its actors satirize, but also take very seriously, this particular bourgeois affliction as dramatic material.
Rachel, however, is on the other end of the prestige spectrum from almost everyone else on the show. And the contrast between her ambivalence about success and the scrappy aspirational energy of Ben, Cam, and their friends give the show a sense of poignancy, as well as an ultimate feeling of anxiety about its own materialism. In that respect, How to Make It in America is as much about how to succeed as it is about how to “make it” through the transitional period between youthful idealism and adulthood, what Dunham called, ominously and hilariously, “the epilogue to Felicity.”
Visually, How to Make It in America is a revelation. It’s easily one of the most aesthetically distinctive shows on HBO right now; the free-associative editing style recalls the spectacular first season of FX’s Damages. The sharp, rhythmic cuts of the stunning credits sequence continue into the actual episodes, with transitions between vignettes marked by flashes to LastNightsParty-style photos. And the musical cues, curated with as much endearing pretension as a Brooklyn house party, are often very funny, and always suffused with the show’s general New-York-I-Love-You-But-You’re-Bringing-Me-Down outlook.
The characters and predicaments on How to Make It in America, despite the title’s bid for universality, aren’t necessarily relatable to everyone. But especially in the context of new network shows like Whitney and New Girl that profess to encapsulate the experiences of this demographic only to rehash 20-year-old sitcom commonplaces, How to Make It in America is a triumph of zeitgeist wrangling. Like Dunham’s film or IFC’s Portlandia, this show prioritizes its faithfulness to the cultural moment. And, anchored by gorgeous production design and the pop naturalism of its performances, How to Make It in America dramatizes this particular cultural moment with uncommon style and a little grace as well.