The High Life: High Maintenance‘s New York Comes to HBO


High Maintenance
Season 1, HBO, Fridays through October 21

High Maintenance’s season premiere, its first for HBO following a hit run on Vimeo, begins with a transaction. It’s the first of many within the six-episode arc, but it’s not The Guy (Ben Sinclair), the weed courier appearing throughout, making a delivery to one of his many clients: he’s getting a haircut. He jokes with his barber, who’s had a hairstyle in mind for him, even though his receding hairline offers few options. There’s an exchange of funds for services, but also, and more poignantly, a genuine bond. Barbers and couriers are unique in that they’re given time to establish intimacy and trust while providing a needed service. Hair is a luxury. Weed is a luxury. Hell, the city is a luxury. As such, they’re taken for granted. High Maintenance co-creators (and husband and wife) Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld recognize cannabis culture’s necessity to city living is more than just an opportunity for surreal humor. That occurs here, but more importantly, weed is unifying and therapeutic. That’s a sweet sincerity missing from most recent depictions and perceptions, comedic or dramatic, of a city negatively cast as self-involved.

The simple premise of High Maintenance—The Guy bikes with his strongboxes of sweet leaf from one New York apartment to the next—allows some marvelous character development. A mantra of the service industry is “the customer comes first,” and High Maintenance adheres to that in its expansion of recurring characters beyond stock “21st Century New Yorker” types. Though binging the nineteen short episodes doesn’t hurt before watching Friday’s premiere (they’re now available through HBO Go), it isn’t necessary either; each return client is reintroduced with a whole new set of quirks and problems to hilarious results. There’s the return of an annoying narcissist and her “gay husband” (dubbed “Assholes” on The Guy’s phone), a lonely gay wreathmaker in love with La Croix and Helen Hunt, and an unsuspecting homeless lady. The newcomers are just as indelible; the second episode, “Museebat” features Amy Smart as one half of a couple with childish cultural appropriation habits living across from an uptight Muslim family whose teenage niece (Shazi Raja) seeks rebellion by mimicking Western indulgence. It’s a poignant illustration of how as New York city becomes richer and whiter, what constitutes “adulthood” becomes disorienting.

Another newcomer is Ismenia Mendes in episode five, “Selfie,” embodying the Social Media Addict archetype, constantly plugged in while screwing up every human encounter she has. Occasionally, High Maintenance approaches “everything is connected” treacle in how The Guy’s appearances effect his clients’ journeys, but Mendes reveals Sinclair and Blichfeld’s self-awareness. They’re cognizant not only of how connectivity gets spoiled by our instant gratifications, but by how the weed industry has become taken over by white capitalism. High Maintenance offers no solution or reason for that problem; it just accepts it, even going so far as to satirize the opposing outrage. (Whether that is to the show’s detriment is entirely subjective.)  But the real standout debut is Gatsby, the wolfhound-mix centering “Grandpa.” It’s the season’s most visually stunning episode, much of it taking place from Gatsby’s point of view. His own need for affection is not unlike that of his human co-stars, but it’s the most heart-tugging; he falls for his sweetie-pie dog-walker and falls into a crippling depression when she’s not around. Even our animal pals have their own interpersonal transactions that need accounting for.

In April of 2014, the Village Voice ran a piece by Tessa Stuart for its marijuana-centric issue. It featured testimony from weed messenger “Desmond,” who uses a fake name since the trade is still a legal taboo, despite New York’s leftist leanings. The job sounds risky, mysterious, and kinda fun. It could very well double for The Guy’s scarcely-detailed backstory, but he’s already so genuine and present that the less we know of him, the better. Drug-pushers have been lionized and empathetic for some years now. Be it Broad City, Weeds, or the Snoop-backed Mary + Jane (a title that’ll never best Doggy Fizzle Televizzle), our entertainments influence our collective outlook, and vice-versa. High Maintenance can be considered alongside these shows, but it’s ultimately a human comedy that would still stand out for its sensitivity and inclusivity, even if it didn’t feature so many dongs and gravity bongs.

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