Last Night's TV: How to Make It in America/Sky Atlantic
30 Rock/Comedy Central
Tim Marlow on Modern British Sculpture/Sky Arts 1
Friday 25 February 2011
Those of you trapped outside the Sky Atlantic paywall are probably aware you're missing major dramas like Boardwalk Empire and Treme. But as you teach yourselves how to steal those shows from the internet, you should also make a note to download one more of the channel's acquisitions: the underhyped How to Make It in America, a half-hour comedy/drama by the creators of Entourage.
Its protagonists are Ben and Cam, two young New Yorkers chasing the American Dream in the midst of recession, a bit like the world's best-looking Apprentice contestants. Their skateboard design business has flopped, so when a roll of high-quality denim falls off the back of a lorry, they naturally decide to make jeans instead, with the intention of flogging them to the fashion victims of Williamsburg, or whichever New York district is coolest nowadays.
We're yet to learn whether they'll succeed. In the interim, however, they attend parties hosted by models in loft apartments, where Cam hooks up with models, and where Ben whines to models about his interior designer ex-girlfriend (who might as well be a model). And all the while, Grizzly Bear or some other very "now" band contribute quality mood music surely destined for a spin-off soundtrack CD.
Like Entourage, How to... is fantasy viewing for aspirational hipster twentysomethings. Yet unlike Entourage, the lifestyle it depicts seems almost within reach of the average chump (minus, perhaps, the models). This is especially galling for a newly minted thirtysomething such as myself, secure in the knowledge that I'll now never spend a portion of my twenties living in the 'Burg – or anywhere else in New York. Thus, I find How to... both compelling and disheartening.
Bryan Greenberg and Victor Rasuk (as Ben and Cam) make charming protagonists, and I'd happily watch a whole half-hour of Lake Bell (as the model-esque ex, Rachel), but the real star turns come from supporting players Eddie Kaye Thomas and Luis Guzmán. Thomas, known to twentysomethings – and early thirtysomethings – as "Shit-brick" from American Pie, plays a dorky financier who agrees to fund the pair's fashion line if they'll help him get into Manhattan's hottest nightclubs. Guzmá* steals every scene he's in as Cam's cousin Rene, an ex-con with his own ambitious business plans. Last night, he staged a hostile takeover of an energy-drink company called Rasta Monster.
Mark Wahlberg and his producing partners are behind both Entourage and How to..., which has, to my joy/chagrin, been granted a second series by HBO. They appear to have a monopoly on this deeply likeable "dramedy" genre. It's a rich seam that others ought to mine.
The live episode has now become such a familiar viewer-grabbing tactic that even EastEnders is in on the act. When a drama like ER stages a live studio broadcast, it ramps up the show's existing tension with the added possibility of flubbed lines. When a sitcom tries it, as the 30 Rock episode broadcast last night did, it's an excuse for a new set of hilarious in-jokes, one of which was, indeed, about the possibility of flubbed lines. As Alec Baldwin's acerbic TV exec Jack Donaghy observed, the wobbly sets and static camerawork made the whole thing feel a lot like "a Mexican soap opera".
The cast of 30 Rock are at a distinct advantage in experimenting with live telly, as most of them come via Saturday Night Live, the live TV sketch show that it parodies. Last night's celebrity guest stars – Jon Hamm of Mad Men and the ever-game Matt Damon – have experience as SNL guest hosts. And Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who appeared as Liz Lemon's better-looking imaginary self, is famous as Elaine from Seinfeld, one of the most successful studio sitcoms ever. Yet despite the relative ease with which the cast navigated their live half-hour ordeal, it was exhilarating to see such a modern, meta-comedy thrown back into the traditional, studio audience setting. Proof for aspiring gag-writers that the old ones may yet be the best.
Moving the medium forward by leaps and bounds, on the other hand, was Tim Marlow on Modern British Sculpture, the first programme in the critic's series to be shot and broadcast in 3D. The Sky press office was understandably reluctant to furnish me with the necessary equipment to watch it in 3D at short notice: 3D-ready TV, 3D-inclusive Sky subscription, not to mention 3D specs. So unless I'd persuaded a 3D-ready pub to switch from Sky Sports to Sky Arts 1 for the evening, I was always going to be left imagining the glories of that extra dimension. Without it, this televisual tour of the Royal Academy's Modern British Sculpture exhibition felt like losing the remote late at night during Open University, or one of those boring school trips with the art teacher who all the girls fancy.
Still, this was (I imagine) a fine use of 3D's possibilities. Like the live nationwide cinema "simulcasts" of the National Theatre's stage productions, it brought viewers closer to cultural experiences normally reserved for Londoners, or for those who can afford the train ticket: Jacob Epstein's alabaster Adam, Anthony Caro's Early One Morning, Damien Hirst's Let's Eat Outside Today. Of course, the cost of a train ticket pales in comparison to the price of the aforementioned 3D equipment, but I expect you'll soon be able to steal that from the internet, too.
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