Thursday, January 5, 2012

What January 5th Means To Me: Farewell To The Two Shows That Made Me Miss New York

Oh, Bored To Death and How To Make It In America...we hardly knew ye. 

It seems like hundreds of television shows use New York as a backdrop, while simultaneously attempting to create a character out of the unique city that specializes in both creating and crushing hopes and dreams, while duping you into feeling that your entire pursuit is, in fact, romantic.  After all, Frank Sinatra crooned that if one could "make it there, (they) could make it anywhere," and there is truth to this as New York has this embedded mystical quality that rises like warm steam (or nitrous oxide) through sidewalk cracks and intoxicates its citizens, causing them to think that its canyons are actually some kind of concrete Garden of Eden (just have one five-minute conversation with anyone who lives in New York and you'll know what I mean).  But although small screen depictions of New York mostly fail, HBO shows like Sex And The City, and the recently cancelled, low rated half hours Bored To Death and How To Make It In America actually did capture complexity and exhilaration of living in the city that doesn't sleep.

By all accounts, How To Make It In America was not a great television show. At all.  It featured strange subplots that created an abnormal jigsaw puzzle that never quite fit, resulting in a half-hour of disjointed storytelling, starring a strange, yet somewhat interesting stew of Bryan Greenburg, Victor Rasuk, Luis Guzman, and Kid Cudi, that was compelling enough to watch, but never satisfying enough on an emotional level.  It was, perhaps, unintentionally introduced to audiences as a replacement for Entourage, except the show never approached the fringes of "funny," and actually never really tried.  And, unlike Entourage, which exhibited just how fun a celebrity's life can be, while creating a fairy tale of Hollywood where a character's biggest problem is the size of his calves (I'll miss you, Johnny Drama), How To Make It In America was all about the hustle of trying to even get a sniff of that success.  The two main characters, Cam and Ben, are poor, but never hungry, on the precipice of failure, but never deterred, and in a sense, How To Make It In America became a show about dream survival for an entire generation who inherited a shitty economy, and less opportunity, but still retain hope (perhaps out of naivete) that they, too, can follow their creative pursuits. It provided a three-walled safe house where failure seemed admirable, and success perhaps inevitable, which easily allowed us to effortlessly live vicariously through them, even if their daily trials and tribulations weren't all that interesting, in a world (fashion design) that most of us don't really know or care about. But even though this all sounds depressing, and I suppose at times it was, they successfully, and subtly, characterized New York as that sexy place, where "only the strong survive."  Though Ben and Cam never got their "Crisp" fashion label into Barney's, they still seemed to be able to tap into a fun, NYC subculture that gave their pursuits credibility and would provide them motivation to keep going.  With constant use of cityscapes and street shots, How To Make It In America proved that the hustle can still be fun, and spoke to a generation that continues to dream and be optimistic, even while getting kicked in the teeth.  In this way, it's kind of like an anti-Entourage, or the "realistic" Entourage for the unemployed.  Either way, we'll never know if Crisp jeans will become popular. 

Bored To Death, another love letter to New York, is a completely different animal from How To Make It In America, though also succeeded at using New York as a character that seemed to play an active role in the show's constant calamities.  Also, unlike HTMIA, Bored To Death was, by all means, a quirky, hilarious, smart, and subtle thirty minutes of television, even if it was more of an acquired taste.  The mixture of Ted Danson, Jason Schwartzman, and Zach Galifianakis created for one of the best ensembles on television, and though the plot lines were often beyond absurd, they did seem to make sense in their small world that seemed completely plausible thanks to the mystery/assumed possibility of New York.  Whether dealing with an S&M club raid, the opening of a Brooklyn organic restaurant, a shootout on the docks, or Mommy and Me meeting in Central Park, the show expertly used the heightened reality of New York and tapped into the thought process that hundreds of strange and unknown subcultures do exist, and that exploring the vast seedy underbelly of America's most popular city is as interesting as it sounds.  Whether or not any of these crazy subplots were inspired by actual truth is completely irrelevant because the world created within the show, mixed with preconceived notions of New York as a city of endless possibility, allowed for the insane storylines to exist and added extra layers to an already sophisticated brand of comedy.

All the above said, it's not a shock that both these shows were cancelled.  They either didn't attempt to appeal to large audiences or failed in their quest to do so.  But they both did capture the idiosyncrasies, possibilities, and sexiness of New York, and I, personally, would have loved to see where more time would have lead them. 

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