It’s nearly impossible not to compare How to Make It in America with Entourage. The two series share production teams and writers. They both follow the trials and tribulations of young men in modern culture. And they both feature a whole lot of last-minute “everything’s going to be alright!” moments. But after watching last night’s How to Make it premiere, I realized something: It is already pretty much better than Entourage ever was.
Of course, this isn’t lofty praise. Being better than Entourage doesn’t mean a whole lot in the grand scheme of things. Although I’ve spent a little time discussing the value of Entourage here on the blog, it is very clear that Entourage wasn’t a great series and even more clear that no one working on it was aware enough to actually recognize its biggest issues. However, it seems like the people who worked on Entourage that then moved over to America did see some of the problems and their awareness has ultimately paid dividends. Entourage’s three biggest problems, in any order were: The lack of stakes and consequences, the characters being unlikable and treatment of women. Though it won’t win any awards for depth, narrative propulsion or the portrayal of overly complex characters (male or female), I’d argue that How to Make It in America is already better at all of these things than Entourage ever was.
Let’s move through each of these very quickly. The audience knows exactly what Ben and Cam are trying to do (get their clothing line off the ground) and what happens if things don’t work out (they’ll be even further into poverty with no direction in life). When they fail, like in the season two premiere when they struggle to come up with a standout theme or message for Crisp, there are consequences (they lose their window spot in a boutique). The characters on this series are all generally likable. Ben is sometimes a wet blanket, but he has real hopes, dreams and concerns. Same goes for Cam, Rene and Rachel. We know just enough about them to at least kind of care about Rene’s desire to make Rasta Monsta big or Rachel’s inability to figure out her life. Simple motivations, but at least they exist. And again, Rachel feels like a person, not just someone who gets to have sex with lead characters and then move along. Women exist in this series’ world to do more than that.
The biggest strength of How to Make It, especially when compared with Entourage, is the setting and the characters’ current positions. Entourage started with the characters on top of the world and there was really nowhere for them to go but slightly higher up the food-chain, with an occasional speed bump thrown in for good measure. It is somewhat difficult to root for a bunch of people who are already rich or are just siphoning off from those who are already rich. Their problems mean nothing.
But on this series, it is much easier to care about Crisp, Rasta Monsta and their respective brain-trusts because they are starting from the bottom and they’re actually busting their ass to make something happen. Sure, they conveniently run into people/narrative devices that can help them go one step further, but it’s not like either brand is blowing up or Ben, Cam or Rene have their pockets lined with cash. This is still an up-hill battle and the series is smart enough to make sure both business develop at a slow pace. Throw in the fact that these characters feel real and mostly likable and it makes it much easier to care about their real struggles than whether or not Vince is going to do the next Aquaman movie. The stakes here are lower in the grand scheme of things, but more important to the characters personally and while that’s an obvious and simple distinction between the two series, it makes all the difference in the world.
“I’m Good” exemplifies this all pretty well. The episode quickly reintroduces the characters and the world, sets up this week’s problem (they don’t have enough street cred), throws in a stupid, but somehow sort of character-based obstacle (Ben getting high and subsequently freaking out about Crisp’s lack of success) and then wraps it all up with a quasi, backhanded solution (they sold some units at their event and shots were fired, presumably raising awareness and cred). Ben and Cam didn’t really deserve the success they received in the episode, but it was such a small victory that it doesn’t really matter. Plus, like I said, I thought Ben’s drug-induced freak-out made a lot of sense in the context of the story. They just came back from a great time in Japan to the hard, cold reality that Crisp means nothing in NYC. Now with a rival brand rising up because of their hard edge and crafty marketing abilities, Ben sees his generally straight-laced, nice demeanor as a problem. I probably didn’t need much of Bryan Greenberg trying to play high, but I’m willing to read the awkwardness of those scenes as Ben’s awkwardness.
Look, being a better series than Entourage doesn’t mean squat. But I like How to Make It in America quite a bit. The characters are complex and likable enough, the narrative has a little weight to it and damn is it just beautiful to look at. Entourage was supposed to be lifestyle porn, but this series makes being a poor twentysomething in NYC seem more interesting and cool than whatever the hell Entourage did for Los Angeles. Simply put, I’m glad How to Make It in America is back.