Wednesday, January 25, 2012

How I Made it in America

Matt Domino finally returns to his own website to share his long-stewing thoughts on the baffling television show that was "How to Make it in America."

*Before you read this article, I have to give credit to for doing a fantastic job covering the "How to Make it in America" phenomenon as it was unfolding; they set the bar very high. You can read all of their coverage here.

How To Make it in America was not a great show. In fact, it was not even a good show. The acting was not remarkable and, at times, the writing was just plain awful. A friend once described watching How To Make it in America as, “having room temperature air blowing on your face.” There was nothing remarkable about the show—it made you feel almost nothing—yet it remained so very watchable. In fact it was its “room temperature blowing air” nature that made it fascinating. After spending a long weekend living in New York, drinking, staying out late with people that aren’t as interesting as they imagine, when Sunday night rolled around, you could use some warm air on your face. And in many ways, while you watched How To Make it in America, you were looking into a very unrealistic mirror and indulging in your own vanity in perhaps the worst possible way.

This past summer, before Season Two of How to Make it in America started, one Sunday my roommate and I watched the entire first season of the show. We watched it in one marathon, eight-episode, four-hour sitting. During those four hours, we forgot the characters’ names, we forgot ongoing storylines, hell, we would have forgotten what happened in each previous episode if they didn’t have the poorly edited recap at the beginning of every episode. And the funny part is that we had watched Season One when it originally aired. Now, my roommate and I aren’t stoners by any means (now the character Domingo, aptly played by Kid Cudi is a different story); nor are we brain-dead idiots, yet we still couldn’t maintain a firm grasp on who or what was going on in the show. And that’s not to say that the first season tells its narrative in some disjointed or confused manner, it’s just that there’s nothing to really care about. If you think I am going to continue on about a show that I’ve described as having “nothing to care about,” then you are mistaken, because I am going to continue on about a show that has no discernible remarkable quality, yet still manages to keep you hooked.

Who Was That?

The first key to the show’s “forgettableness” is the names of its characters. The main character’s name is Ben Epstein. Ben’s ex-girlfriend, whom we can infer that he dated for about four years, is named Rachel. Rachel is dating a guy in his early 30’s named Jake who is a hotelier. Meanwhile, Ben’s best friend is a charming, scheming, Dominican ladies-man from the Bronx named Cam Calderon. Cam has an ex-con cousin named Rene (played with an hilarious straight face by Luis Guzman) who is trying to go straight by purchasing an energy drink franchise known as Rasta Monsta. Ben also reconnects with his Jewish day-school friend, David Kaplan aka “Kapo,” who works for a hedge fund. And of course there is Domingo, Ben and Cam’s black, weed-dealing, dog-walking friend who is there to provide some level of hip-hop credibility. Now, take all of those characters in for a moment. The amount of clichés certainly overwhelms you, but there have been shows with far more clichéd characters that have succeeded (i.e. Friends, Will & Grace). The striking part of the clichéd characters in How to Make it in America is how audacious each cliché is. Really, a sensitive, but street-smart New York Jew with a smooth-talking, scheming, Bronx-born, Dominican best friend? Oh, a black friend that deals weed and walks dogs? The reason why my roommate and I couldn’t remember any of the characters’ names is that these clichés are so true, so clichéd, so evident in the current New York, that they are hard to discern from someone that you might have just met the night before. All you had to do is take one look at the character Lulu D from Season Two to know exactly what I am talking about.

And that’s what makes the show, and by extension, modern New York, truly sad; and that is one of the reasons why you find yourself sucked into the world of How to Make it in America.

“It’s on TV”

By osmosis, I have taken a George Costanza quote as gospel. When the original Daily Show with Craig Kilborne was replaced by The Daily Show with Jon Stewart I argued that the original was superior. I believed that Stewart and the producers had missed the point of the show. The Daily Show was The Daily Show because it was on TV. It had a host named Craig Kilborne, there were funny bits and vignettes that didn’t really have anything to do with anything, and then there was the interview that always concluded with ever-popular “Five Questions.” And, as George Costanza would say, you watched it because it was on TV. To me, there was nothing more genius than that; and that thought clicked in my brain before I realized that that was the pitch George gave to NBC for the show Jerry on Seinfeld. Now, clearly, Jon Stewart’s Daily Show has gone on to be a huge success and the standard bearer for political and social satire on television; it has become a cultural staple. However, it doesn’t have the same random appeal as Craig Kilborne’s The Daily Show; it feeds into the cultural expectation of having a show to represent the liberal “counter-culture” at all times. It is satire and I don’t like for out-right satire. Pope was one of the worst things that could happen to English literature; Swift wasn’t that much better. Only Joyce (and Wilde to a lesser extent) improved on their mistakes. I prefer my humor random, inane, obscure and downright failed.

Like Jerry and The Daily Show, to me, How to Make it in America was another show that was simply on television. There was something beautiful in the fact that Sunday night would come, I would be tired from the activities of the weekend or my own self-consciousness and doubts and I would cook dinner in my apartment and settle into my “warming” Sunday evening beers and then at the specifically designated time, each week, How to Make it in America would be on HBO. It became a ritual, something to rely on. I knew that at whatever time the show came on, it would be on and I would be promptly thrust, via the best television theme song since the theme from The Wire: Season 1, into a world full of clichéd characters who were supposed to represent New York. And as the twenty-five minutes would play out in typical, predictable, weightless fashion, with good-looking women (but without the Entourage unbelievability) and trendy men flashing across the screen, I would feel a deep, strange, sense of sadness. This world was not rich or rewarding like the worlds of Mad Men, The Wire, Breaking Bad, or even Boardwalk Empire, but it was a world nonetheless and it was a slightly real world I could become immersed in each week.  Sure, I could barely remember Rachel’s name or Ben’s name or Domingo’s name (I always remembered the name Cam Calderrrron), but that didn’t mean I couldn’t recognize them on the screen. What I am saying is that this fairly meaningless show represented the most fundamental element of television, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t recognize them on the screen. What I am saying is that this fairly meaningless show represented the most fundamental element of television—it presented objects moving on a screen that I could recognize as familiar and would feel sad about when they disappeared. For this pure fact of cognizance, How to Make it in America is utterly fascinating to me.

“It’s OK, Turtle. I took my money and bought all the shares of Avion that you sold and reinvested them. We both made over four million dollars on the deal.”
-       Vincent Chase, paraphrased from “Entourage: The Final Season”

Like Entourage before it, How to Make it in America mastered that fantastic narrative device we know as “everything works out.” The key difference between the two shows is that, while Entourage used the device to exploit the extravagance of the movie star life it depicted, How to Make it in America used it to make fairly realistic situations “work out.” In Season Two, Kapo gets in trouble for inside trading. In the end, he only ends up going to minimum-security prison for about a month and Cam and Ben are able to throw him a kick-ass party at a club to send him off. Now, this is basically a peripheral storyline so in the scheme of things it’s a somewhat mundane plot element to use the “everything works out card” on.

Another prime example of the “everything works out” card in Season Two is the episode where Cam and Ben need to freshen up their look-book for their line, Crisp NYC, on the orders of their representative, Nancy (played by a surprisingly still sexy Gina Gershon). Now, in order to get the proper look that Ben and Cam need on short notice, they need to ask the father of Cam’s new girlfriend, the always-annoying Lulu D, if they can use his apartment to take some photos. Cam goes to Lulu’s father (played by a game Joe Pantoliano) who is a multimillion-dollar artist (only in NYC baby!) and asks him to use his apartment to take the pictures for the look-book. Lulu’s father says that Cam can take the pictures, but first he has to pass one test. After a very clever cut to a trophy case filled with wrestling trophies, we learn that the test turns out to be Cam beating Lulu’s father in a wrestling match. Cam pins Joey Pants in what was possibly the most awkward scene in the history of television and in turn gets to use his apartment to take photos of the Crisp NYC gear on Mr. Lulu D himself, because nothing is cooler than a rich, successful artist wearing an up and coming brand.

Now, take that series of events in one more time. Please, go ahead; feel free to read my witty and sarcastic tone once more. OK, not that you’re done—how stupid is that? Seriously, how stupid does that plot sound? I actually watched that episode and am now writing about it. But, it proves my point. Why did they use the “everything works out card,” the deus ex machina if you will, on a rather pointless and trivial plot development? It doesn’t make any sense, which again is why the show is fascinating. Its plot developments are always trivial and minor. Rachel got Ben a Louis Vuitton suitcase that he always wanted, but he tells her he thinks they are better off as friends as he paints the interior of a gourmet donut shop called “Funkin’ Fauxnuts” to  make extra cash. This show itself is trivial and minor at its core, yet its audacity to keep on going, to keep on being on television, while using such plot devices as the deus ex machina and quality guest stars like Joe Pantoliano and Gina Gershon to play ultra-clichéd roles gave it a certain appeal, a certain baffling air of mystery that I just couldn’t resist. Ben still has feelings for Rachel and can’t go with his new girlfriend to a wedding, but she understands because she once drove to Florida to see Radiohead.

Yes, these are actual things that happened on How to Make it in America.

Was that a wink?

And other times I liked the show because I felt that it knew what it was doing all along. I’ll be brief in this section so we can move this whole dissection along, so I will only use my very favorite example of How to Make it in America perhaps using “the knowing wink.” In the first episode of Season Two, we are introduced to a character by the name of Andy Sussman. Andy is trying to represent Crisp NYC as well as bond with Cam and Ben. Andy Sussman ends up losing out to Nancy so that Ben can go on to have the better “sex=ratings” storyline where he sleeps with an older woman aka Nancy.

Now all this would be fine, except for the fact that Andy Sussman keeps popping up. And each time he pops up he always prefaces his first line of dialogue or follows it with the line “This is Andy Sussman.” Now, I never had time to get to know the character of Andy Sussman, but he didn’t strike me as an overly formal guy. I firmly believe that the reason the character always said, “This is Andy Sussman” is because the show-runners received comments that people were forgetting the names of the actual main characters, so how were they going to keep a character like Andy Sussman, totally forgettable in every way, on the radar so that they could use him in the big payoff at the end of Season Two. And even then, in Sussman’s moment of glory at the end of Season Two, he has to repeat his name so that the viewer can actually remember who he is. I don’t know if this was intentional, but some part of me, the part that believes in good things, that people are smart and recognize when they can do something really funny, firmly thinks that the makers and writers of How to Make it in America kept the “This is Andy Sussman” joke going in order for the people, like me, who were mystified by the overall tone and approach of the show, to get some modicum of enjoyment.

Call it pathetic if you will, I call it “The Success of the Sussman Twist.”

Why Did You Watch It?

There is no good reason to write about How to Make it in America for this long. There was no good reason to even watch the show in the first place. In fact, my reasons for watching it are completely shallow: it was on TV, I drank beer while watching it, it felt like room-temperature air on my face, it allowed me to think of the greatness of my own snarky humor while watching its poorly written characters. However, I know that the pangs of anxiety I got from watching the show hit me because it reminded me of people I knew or saw or could possibly meet. And that was the fact that scared me.

In one episode, Rachel (Lake Bell) goes to the Bushwick home of a designer in a design group called Neanderthal. The designer has a garden and has a dinner party with his own homemade pickles. Then, everyone gets on their bikes to take a carefree ride through Brooklyn. The scary part of all this is that I know people who would do this or are doing this. I’ve never seen Portlandia, but I know that show skewers the hipster culture of today in a very pointed way. What scares me about How to Make it in America is that there is no pointed satire; this is just a show that plays with a straight face, that people in television thought would sell. And if this is what I am supposed to look like or supposed to act like; or if this is what the people around me are supposed to look like and act like, then I’ve got to take a closer look in the mirror and figure out how I can change that. Because if this is the amplified vision of life in New York in your 20’s, then we seriously messed up.

Ah, who am I kidding? I really watched it because I wanted to see Lake Bell naked (she did get naked) and because I couldn’t understand how such a stupid show was actually made. But it was that slight twinge of disturbance during every episode; that strange sadness when it was over, that made me feel and recognize my own vanity and wonder if I too wasn’t just a creature driven and derided by the very same things as Cam Calderon, Ben Epstein and Rachel Whatever-the-hell-her-last-name-was.


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