Everyone in the HBO series How To Make It In America, which airs its season two finale Sunday night, is trying to make it in America. But the show’s lead pair’s chosen staging ground for moving up is the clothing world, and duly the show is not so much dotted as flushed with Jewish characters. To hear Ian Edelman, the show’s creator and prime writer, tell it, he is just depicting the New York City that he knows.
At this point, you essentially expect certain archetypes, and How To Make It In America certainly provides them. The main character is Ben Epstein, a child of the Upper West Side whose mother is active in the teachers union and father can be found at a bookstore (in the episode in which you find him there, the bookstore is recognizable to a certain viewer of the show as Morningside Heights’ Bookculture, formerly known as Labyrinth). “It was always Upper West Side, H&H bagels—those are my cultural touchstones,” says Edelman. “That is always how I saw Ben. It’s a very specific breed of New Yorker: educated, has a certain set of values that I believe in.” Edelman grew up on the east side, but most of his friends were across Central Park; he attended Hunter College High School and then Wesleyan, and is not the first of whom that may be said. The show, he says, was inspired by growing up in the city playing basketball and hanging out. “Skateboarding was very do it yourself,” he explains, “and the early days of hip-hop. Going to the Army-Navy store to find cargo pants and bomber jackets: that was my first foray into fashion.” One can’t help but notice that Edelman and Ben look extremely alike, right up to the carefully grown-out reddish stubble.
But what is unusual, and welcome, about the show is the variety of Jewish characters on display. Epstein, the protagonist, would fit in on any number of programs. His boyhood friend David Kaplan, a dorky party-boy banker, also makes sense in several different contexts. But what about “Yosi,” the sketchy Israeli manufacturer that Ben and his best friend, Cam (a Dominican-American—he forms the other major part of the show’s narrative), are currently caught up with? Or Yosi’s wife, fashion macher Nancy Frankenburg (played by Gina Gershon), a sultry but recognizably Jewish—the term is unfortunately unavoidable—cougar? Or Andy Sussman, the young agent from a long line of garmentos who strives, unsuccessfully, to represent Ben and Cam’s brand, Crisp? Or the brash, ancient tailor the brothers do business with in season one? “I grew up with my parents first-generation American,” Edelman explains. “American Dream, anything can happen: it takes a generation to see it.”
This last character, the tailor, is who inspired me to get in touch with Edelman. I was reminded of him last week upon seeing this Wall Street Journal article about Martin Greenfield, whose East Williamsburg factory makes clothes for some of New York’s hippest brands despite the fact that Greenfield is 83 and has been doing this since 1947, before which he was, among other places, in Auschwitz. (And yes, of course the Times has profiled him too.) I suspected Greenfield was the tailor’s real-life model; Edelman confirms it. “We shot at Martin Greenfield’s shop,” he tells me. “We met him, and he’s an amazing, inspiring man. It’s the essence of all that—the American success story.”
As Ben and Cam struggle with the twin pressures of wanting to succeed and wanting not to sell out, it’s easy to see that the figure who may most want to make it in America is Edelman himself. The show has not yet been renewed for a third season. “We’ll see what happens,” says Edelman. “I’m thrilled with this season, and I think it’s catching on. I know there’s something very special about the show.”
The obvious comparison is to Entourage, with which this show shares a producer: a tale of young men on the make in the big city. Entourage, which is barely if at all a better show, caught on immediately and went on to have a healthy run; How To Make It In America completely lacks that sort of buzz. I suspect part of the problem is that it’s set on a smaller scale; that it uses fictionalized versions of downtown icons rather than real-life movie stars in cameos; and that much time is devoted to subplots involving Cam’s uncle, a Dominican hood on parole, which tend to be uncompelling. (Women viewers, by contrast, have in Ben’s ex-girlfriend a more fully realized female character than any on Entourage.) If How To Make It In America instructs anything, it is that you can’t let your confidence slag in the face of adversity—a lesson that seems intuitively connected to the way Edelman speaks admiringly about Greenfield. “GQ called him the greatest tailor in the world,” Edelman beams. “He does costumes for Boardwalk Empire,” another HBO show. “Does Rag & Bone. He’s presidential in that way, got his German accent, 80 with a tan. And he’s like, ‘Do you know anyone else who hasn’t missed a day of work in 70 years?’” Ah, the hustle.