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TV Weekend: I Could Review How to Make It in America…

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…or, you could just watch the whole thing, right now, without HBO, cheap-like-for-free at YouTube. (I could say NSFW. But is it ever safe to watch a half-hour TV show at work? I mean, unless you have my job.)

For what it’s worth, I recommend it. I’ve seen four episodes of How to Make It in America, and while I can’t say that it’s a great HBO comedy yet—it is not, really, even strictly a comedy in the ha-ha-hilarious sense—it’s likeable and absorbing and made me want to stick around for more.

First thing you’ll notice is the credits, which are the best thing about the show. That will sound like an insult. It is not; they are awesome credits. Not just because they look and sound great, but because, even by the standards of an HBO show, they really bring together the show’s larger themes—grit, hunger, ambition, the multicultural whirl of New York and the culture-transcending pursuit of the almighty dollar—better even than the show itself does.

The show is about jeans. Well, it’s about two guys who want to make jeans. Specifically, it’s about Ben (Bryan Greenberg) and Cam (Victor Rasuk), two pals—an aspiring designer and a skateboard entrepreneur—who come into a shipment of some primo Japanese denim, and try to scrounge up the cash and backers to turn them into a high-end line of jeans.

And that’s the story. There’s also a subplot about Victor’s ex-con cousin Rene (Luis Guzman), who’s trying to go legit in the energy-drink business, a little romance and some comic relief (and financial support) from their hedge-fund buddy David (Eddie Kaye Thomas). But yeah, you’re watching a season of a show about guys trying to make pants.

I sense that you are not rushing out to subscribe to HBO over this. But what HTMIIA is really about, as those credits indicate, is atmosphere. Frothy as the show is (it’s executive produced my Mark Wahlberg of Entourage, and the bro-bonding bonhomie is similar), that atmosphere is well-executed, and specifically, geographically real: you can practically breathe in downtown Manhattan and Brooklyn the way they’re conceived here.

But more than details and local color, the show captures a certain American spirit, the ecumenical immigrant call of ambition and cash that have made New York City a beacon since it was New Amsterdam. That spirit is crystallized in an early exchange between Bryan Cam and a young kid selling peanut M&Ms on the subway: “not for no Boy Scout troop or no basketball team. I’m out here hustling for my damn self, so I can make some money and be a positive member of my community, and to stay away from drugs and the disgusting fiends that use them.”

The kid compliments Bryan’s sneakers and wants to buy them—not to wear, but to sell. They bust each other’s chops, and the kid moves on. He’s a kid and they’re adults. He’s black and they’re white and, well, as Cam says, “close enough” to black. But they’re alike in their pursuit of green.

That’s why, as dumb a subject as it seems on its face, jeans is the perfect object, and symbol, for this show. Denim is cheap and incredibly expensive. It’s work and idleness. It’s high-fashion and low-fashion. It’s street and suite, uptown and downtown, utility and art. It’s actuality and aspiration. And as envisioned by Ben (who imagines a style of jeans inspired by ’70s New York), it is—like the show’s soul-music credits—it’s a symbol for a kind of idealized vision of New York that people carry in their head even if they never actually lived it, one that sits there like an ideal while they work to create the next one.

I don’t want to make HTMIIA sound like a better show that it is. It’s loose and rambling and cool but sometimes slack. It has, like Ben and Cam itself, not nearly yet reached its ambitions. But it’s confident and charming enough that I want to watch it try to reach them.