Starting your own business is risky, painful and full of stumbles. And that's what How To Make It In America is all about -- a clever little dramedy about three different businesses that are trying to get off the ground, and the highs and lows they encounter along the way. It's a little quirky, gritty, and riddled with romantic problems.
Mild-mannered Ben Epstein (Bryan Greenberg) and his street-smart buddy Cam Calderon (Victor Rasuk) decide to start a denim clothing line called Crisp, but run into a bunch of problems -- they have little money, one investor, no business plan and a disastrous sample. Even as their dreams seem to crash and burn, they discover a new business road has just opened up -- if they can keep their hands on the merchandise.
In the meantime, Ben's ex-girlfriend Rachel (Lake Bell) has a wealthy new boyfriend named Darren, which might be good for her designing agency -- but bad for her personal life. And Cam's cousin Rene (Luis Guzmán), who has just gotten out of prison, is going legit with an energy drink called Rasta Monsta -- which is encountering the same sorts of problems as Crisp.
"How To Make It In America" is all about pursuing the American Dream in the 21st century: you need opportunity, street smarts, connections, and lots of hard work. It's not quite as brilliant as some of HBO's other shows, but it does have an endearing, gritty earnestness -- and it reminds you that for every successful business that takes off, there are dozens of failed ones.
Along the way, there are lots of dimly-lit New York nightclubs, shady street venders and warehouses piled high with vintage T-shirts. The writing is fun and often clever ("Edie, do you know where I can find some X?" "Top drawer on the left"), and the writers balance out drama and low-key comedy with an expert hand.
The one downside: it feels a bit unfocused at times, with side-plots about a crazy skateboarder and Ben's new girlfriend. They don't really add anything to the main plot.
Greenberg and Rasuk are a strong pair of Odd-Coupley leads: Ben is a pleasant, mild-mannered young man who's been disappointed over and over, and Cam is a fiercely ambitious, optimistic young man who pounces on every chance for success.
Bell does a pretty good job as Rachel, but she honestly doesn't get to do very much for the first five episodes or so -- but her about-faces in the last few are great. Guzman is compelling as an ex-con valiantly trying to run a legit business, and Shannyn Sossamon is wildly underused as quirky trust-fund art-dealer Gingy Wu.
"How to Make It In America" is a gritty, sleek little show that might blossom into something more. All it needs is a little more oomph and a bit of the fat trimmed off.