How to Make it in America: Sex and the (Same) City

For those of you who, like us at The Style Examiner, think that New York City is one of the finest cities in the world, an interesting phenomenon has taken place over the last couple of years that is worth observing. On one of those rare occasions when TV fiction mirrors reality, the portrayal of New York’s urban lifestyle has become closely entwined with the current Zeitgeist in the HBO series ‘How to Make it in America’, now in its second season, but yet to become deservedly popular outside the USA.

The last time that we were able to witness such a close fusion between real time and place references and fictional TV representation was in ‘Sex and the City’, a decade ago: the four sexy, sassy female characters dropped constant references to restaurants, shops, brands, and had the streets of New York as a background for these to be displayed and experienced. However, even for ‘Sex and the City’, it took a couple of series for its fictionalised reality to be taken seriously by the brands and for the city to accept that mirroring itself in the TV screen was a positive step forward in bright and shiny Jimmy Choos. Once that giant commercial step was taken, the world raised a toast to good taste with a cosmopolitan in hand and didn’t stop sipping for many years.

How to Make it in America’ has jumped this hurdle and, from the pilot episode, viewers were invited to experience a mimetic representation of New York life made possible by constant allusions to real places and people. The characters and their shopping habits exist because of their constant references to, and experiences with the fashionable places and lifestyles of the city and its inhabitants. With the introduction of an HBO business card, the city and its brands have jumped on the bandwagon without hesitation and are happily portrayed as characters in the series. To name but a few, Barneys provides the backdrop to one of the character’s work place, Pharell Williams has a cameo role, and John Varvatos plays himself as the doyen of urban fashion who is willing to help the ambitious street-wise male characters intent on launching a line of jeans.

The characters run art galleries, write for NYLON magazine, dress fashionably, wear colourful trendy Nike vintage trainers, eat edamame in hip neighbourhood restaurants, and live in lofts in downtown areas in Manhattan or in ‘edgier’ boroughs. More importantly, the crisp writing makes them all personae who are very much aware of the value and importance of the creative industries as an overarching capitalist commodity. Ben and Cam, the male protagonists, are hell-bent on living the American Dream by succeeding in fashion. To achieve that, they barge into fashionable restaurants, fashion parties, art premieres, etc, searching for contacts and ways to show that they too can make it as creatives in the city.

The power of creativity and its establishment commodity value is everywhere in the series. Even the font used for the graphics is a nowadays very conservative sans-serif in capitals derivative of Helvetica, and evocative of numerous popular and ubiquitous (and therefore, safely trendy) urban brands like American Apparel, Marc Jacobs, Tom Ford, Dolce & Gabbana, Chanel, and many others. Most scenes are filmed in real apartments, shops or exteriors, with hand-held cameras providing the gritty realism that frames the emotions of this ambitious generation. In a way, it is a kind of TV adaptation of the novella Less Than Zero, albeit with more emotional ambition, but set in New York rather than Los Angeles, and some 20 years later. A rather clever move, particularly when most viewers of the series have not even heard of the novel or of Brett Easton Ellis.

If all this seems exciting and good reasons to watch the series, ultimately it raises the question about where the line between creativity and its fictional representation is drawn. If brands and trends look to fiction to relaunch themselves, where do younger talent go for inspiration and for platforms to show their talent? We enjoy all the references to the erstwhile or currently trendy Bowery, China Town, Nolita, Brooklyn, and Bushwick neighbourhoods in the series, and have had nice meals and drinks in the restaurants and bars where scenes were filmed. But, other than confirming their existence and reminding us of the times there, where is the edge to pull us back to the city and explore new boundaries? Where are the new neighbourhoods, restaurants, jobs, lifestyles that push the creative communities forward?

With a list of impressive backers (such as Mark Whalberg and others who certainly know about the appeal of fashion and its commodity value), HBO has taken an important risk in incorporating the Zeitgeist rather than waiting for its acceptance, and that should be commended. At a time when countless reality shows about fashion are currently filmed but fail to take direction or show true talent, should HBO or another channel now look to produce a series that raises the values of creativity and originality and show audiences where these values truly are? On the other hand, if all these places, brands and trends are now in the public domain, aren’t they already becoming dead? Who wants to live, eat, drink and shop where thousands of TV tourists will now roam?