‘High Maintenance’ is a potent blend
Ben Sinclair in “High Maintenance”
“Globo,” the second-season premiere of HBO’s stoner-centric series “High Maintenance,” is something of a Ground Zero assessment through the lens of The Guy (Ben Sinclair, also the show’s co-creator). A nameless bike-riding weed courier in Brooklyn, The Guy—on this particular day—goes about tending to his shaken and baffled thirty-something clientele (and, by proxy, most of the rest of us) upon their learning about the reality of Donald Trump’s unlikely election.
“People were acting like they’re stocking up for the Apocalypse or something,” says The Guy—a mashup of The Dude and every great bartender-psychiatrist you’ve ever known. For fans of the show, this feels like a reassuring group hug. I know I needed one.
Launched in 2012 as a web series on Vimeo, “High Maintenance” hit its stride right out of the gate. In each of the eighteen short episodes, the show explores a different human of New York with vignettes ranging in length from 6 to 16 minutes. Meanwhile, The Guy serenely winds through bustling Lower East Side, delivering flowers to a cornucopia of arty, weird, neurotic, and sometimes asshole-ish denizens.
Sinclair and co-writer/director Katja Blichfeld are clearly writing the world they know—the people, the neighborhoods, the weed—and peppering the show accordingly with their friends, fellow artists, and borough natives who are celebrities in a 20-square-block area. The result is a sincere diary of details, foibles, and dysfunctions that can come only from living them. The bite-sized, slice-of-life narratives taken together form a vividly realized snapshot of a living, breathing city. It’s a laid-back, funny, half-baked version of “The Wire.”
The last episode of the first season of “High” involves a “Girls” crossover (both productions inadvertently found themselves shooting on the same street in real life). But Lena Dunham’s show was always in a box, constrained by its half-hour sitcom template, as well as Judd Apatow’s omnipresent raunchy/sweet creative aesthetic and the Seinfeldian conceit that clueless narcissists are inherently funny—forever. “High Maintenance,” despite some close-knit ties to the same place and similar archetypes, is thankfully (so far) a different animal.
Season one, episode two, titled “Heidi,” finds wannabe screenwriter Mark (Kyle Harris) attempting to appease his uber-hot Korean girlfriend, Heidi (Greta Lee), only to discover, thanks to The Guy, that he’s dating the notorious Homeless Heidi, a serial couch surfer with an entitlement fetish.
“Helen” introduces us to Patrick (Michael Cyril Creighton), a gay shut-in obsessed with Helen Hunt, La Croix, and buying herb from The Guy (who he’s crushing on) for his terminally ill mother—only to stash it all in a box, never to be smoked.
“Jonathan” finds The Guy playing therapist (as he so often does) to a standup comedian (Hannibal Burress) after he’s almost assassinated onstage. In “Ruth,” The Guy plays Cupid between two customers, a recovering cancer patient, Ellen (Birgit Huppuch), and lonely security guard, Victor (Chris McKinney), who, after chopping hot peppers for an abortive dinner date, takes a piss before washing his hands. The two bond when she has to find a bowl of milk to dip his balls in.
When the first season premiered, I worried that the meandering perfection of the web series would be lost. Sinclair and Blichfeld enjoyed a level of creative control that’s rarely afforded or well-utilized. It didn’t cost much (episodes were being made for less than $1,000). Fortunately—aside from the veneer of more money—not much changed, despite the new 30-minute format that came with the move to HBO.
If anything, the show is better than ever. It routinely subverts the expectations that come with a 30-minute cable comedy—be it with a single-story episode in which the main character is a dog (“Grandpa”) or through a series of vignettes working as thematic cousins, mini-episodes within episodes. It still brings laughs, but the reward comes from the continuity of its world- and character-building.
And we find out more about The Guy. In a sense, The Guy is the most Seinfeldian element of it all. The show is more focused on everyone around him, even though he’s our tour guide. And it’s essentially about nothing.
Most situations in real life (I’m not kidding) can be compared to some “Seinfeld” episode. Even if it doesn’t get more seasons, in a decade “High Maintenance” will have that same kind of retro integrity.