TV Review: 'How to Make It In America'

HBO's latest comedy offering, How to Make It in America, is not a show I can recommend for what it is. As comedies go, it's not particularly funny. In the two episodes I watched, I remember tittering a couple of times, both at jokes that struck me as vaguely homophobic. Its main characters, Ben (Bryan Greenberg) and Cam (Victor Rasuk) aren't particularly likable, either. They aren't awful guys, just the type of 20-something Brooklyn hipsters who are louche, vivacious, and outré in the exact same way that all other 20-something Brooklyn hipsters are louche, vivacious, and outré. And their lives are kind of boring. They're broke and lovelorn and they run in the wrong circles. Mostly, Ben and Cam ride the subway and bounce from one get-rich-quick scheme to the next, the latest being a probable pipe dream of starting up a '70s N.Y.C.–inspired denim line. If it all sounds mundane, it sort of is, but I like How to Make It in America less for what it is than for what it isn't: a dirty, rotten reality show.

Let's be clear: I love reality television, competitions especially. I love American Idol. I owe everything I know about fashion to Project Runway. There's no reality competition I won't give a two-episode trial run, including Animal Planet's Groomer Has It, a show I did not make up for the purposes of this sentence. But as the reality show has graduated from a curious novelty to television's bumper crop, the consequence is that reality television has poisoned, if not supplanted, the capricious, poorly conceived dreams of America's youth.

Today's young people were raised on reality television, to the extent that they've now forgotten that there are other paths to their dream careers besides reality shows. America is the splash of cold water they need. Ben and Cam may be as deluded as the most tone-deaf singer on American Idol, but they've got the hustle spirit. They take meetings with famous designers for advice on their denim line, without a dime of financial backing or the faintest idea of a business plan. In fact, all they have is a spool of Japanese denim they bought off the back of a truck. And when they're told to give up their dream, they keep grinding anyway, because that's what strivers do.

I'm not typically a fan of banality, but the banality of the unglamorous life is precisely what I found so refreshing about America. Ben and Cam aren't interesting or unique, just scrappy ne'er-do-wells trying to stumble into an easy, lucrative living. The problem with American Idol—with all reality shows—is that they've convinced young people that they are interesting and special, that they have a story to tell. I've been wincing through the audition rounds of this season, as the skilled singers are presented with video packages that tell their allegedly compelling narratives. I had a baby when I was 17. I fought in Iraq. My mother passed away. Wow, no kidding? When you're done spinning your yarn, do you mind singing some songs or something? News flash, Idol wannabes: none of you are interesting people, you just have pleasant voices. In reality bizarro-world, the mundane is presented as the spectacular. In America, there's nothing special going on, which is usually the case for kids angling for a break.

The idea that you can be unspectacular, boring, marginally talented, lazy, and still achieve your dreams, is an alluring and insidious one. It's the reason people have made careers out of reality television, like the Real World alum who set off to distant locales such as New Zealand to compete in challenges for prize money. Never mind that some of them are in their mid-30s and have been at this for years, this is the job, and you do it until your third or fourth knee surgery. That's why it was so refreshing to see Ali Fedotowsky, a contestant on this season of The Bachelor,leave the competition to return to work after she ran out of vacation days. Even though she apparently had some second thoughts, she reminded us that real jobs don't offer reality-show leave, but they do offer the value of a real career over the sad, slow withering of the long-distance reality star.

It doesn't take much to get renewed on HBO these days, so I wouldn't be surprised if How to Make It in America gets a second season. But I will be shocked if it becomes a bona fide hit, as it's the exact opposite of the instant gratification entertainment we've ratified with our remotes again and again—shows like Entourage, which oddly enough comes from the same team that produced America. The pitch, I imagine, was a younger, prefame version of Entourage, less about wish fulfillment and more about dream realization. In other words, something more real. Not reality-show reality, actual reality, the kind of reality that now sadly could only come from a scripted show.