New York City, as it’s often portrayed on television, is the worst. It’s certainly not real.
It’s typically more glamorous, or dingier, or more unfriendly, or more magical, or too busy, or implausibly convenient, or a million other things that fail to represent what the city actually is: a place where real people live.
High Maintenance might finally be a TV show that presents New York City in a way that seems actually recognizable.
And not in a “the city is the fifth girl in this friendship!” way, where New York is a “character.” It’s simply a backdrop for the lives of the people we meet every day, oh-so fleetingly, and looks the way it does when we see it in our own lives. It’s a stage of sorts for the theatre of human life that’s constantly in rehearsal—but without the falseness of set dressings or an artistic lens. It’s the city as we know it.
That’s the greatest triumph for HBO’s new series, which knits together a tapestry of New Yorkers’ wild lives as a weed delivery man briefly encounters them. And that presents the most unlikely triumph of High Maintenance, which is that it is a series that uses drugs as its narrative connective tissue, but in which drug use or “stoner comedy” tropes are the least interesting or even the least important parts of the show.
As The Daily Beast wrote when covering an earlier iteration of the show as a web series in 2014, “Marijuana is a supporting character at best, treated no less innocuously than wine or Thai takeout, and taking a back seat to far more compelling and crippling vices.”
As codependent roommates manipulatively sabotage each other’s lives, a swingers’ party devolves into arguments about betrayal, and a Muslim NYU student is confronted for her cavalier rebelliousness, the weed is often just the device through which we’re granted entrance into these people’s lives.
Few shows pull off a feeling quite as voyeuristic as High Maintenance manages, appeasing our perverse desires to be granted intimate access to strangers’ lives. “What’s their deal?” “What’s their story?” “What’s going on behind closed doors?” High Maintenance opens those doors, revealing the sometimes thrilling, sometimes sexy, sometimes dysfunctional, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes odd, and always insightful stories already in progress behind them.
Weaving together these stories with The Guy (Ben Sinclair), the weed delivery guy, High Maintenance shows the unexpected ways in which we’re all connected, stitching the irreverence of one client’s story to the emotional resonance of another’s for anthology-like episodes that are entertaining on their own merits, but comically profound when taken in together.
It’s actually the show’s origins as a web series that help lend it to this atypical comedy series structure. Started in 2012 by husband and wife duo Sinclair (The Guy himself) and Katja Blichfield (who is also among the show’s repertory supporting players), 19 episodes have been produced in the years since, eventually distributed by Vimeo. (Disclosure: Vimeo and The Daily Beast share a parent company, IAC.)
The episodes ranged from five to about 20 minutes, each providing drive-by portraits of the lives of the people The Guy was selling to at the moment. Fans would delight in the ways some characters were tangential figures in others’ lives, some popping up in a smattering of episodes over the course of the series.
Many of those characters return for the move from Vimeo to HBO. Others are brand new, offering an even more vivid portrait of New Yorkers and a greater scope for the series: the aforementioned Muslim college student (Shazi Raja) or a Chinese immigrant who collects bottles from recycling bins (Chlem Cheun), for example. High Maintenance, in some respects, is Humans of New York, the TV Series—but immeasurably less insufferable than that sounds.
More budget and more time gifted by HBO—all episodes are in the traditional 30-minute range, and boast a visibly greater production value than before—hasn’t altered the show’s formula, though. Sinclair and Blichfield stick to abbreviated shorts, usually two an episode, ensuring that the ephemeral nature of the storytelling, so slyly powerful on the webseries, remains intact.
Because we fear we’re creating the impression of some sort of moody, artsy meditation on human life that wouldn’t be of interest to most comedy fans, now is the time to praise Friday night’s premiere episode, a laugh-riot bombshell of depravity and wild plot twists.
A shorter vignette opens the episode, in which The Guy delivers to an intimidating gym rat who is mid-explosive argument with his girlfriend, an aspiring belly dancer. He vents about his girlfriend, asks for feedback on his muscles, offers a business opportunity, attempts to pay in loose change, and monologues in a way that seems strangely cartoonish if not even sociopathic—but also so recognizable to anyone who’s run into that kind of guy in New York.
When The Guy finally makes it out the door, we learn that the gym rat is actually a British acting student trying out a new character, testing his believability on The Guy. Mission accomplished.
But the crux of the episode catches up with The Assholes, gay Max (Max Jenkins) and his best friend/roommate Lainey (Heléne York), whom we’ve met twice before. No two characters on TV are as narcissistic or as toxic as these two friends are. Yet no two characters capture the very specific dynamic of a very specific kind of Brooklyn millennial with as much jarring authenticity—no small feat given that “Realistic Comedy About Brooklyn Millennials” has become its very own TV genre.
We meet them doing coke at a bachelorette party for one of Lainey’s friends. Max sneaks out for a Grindr date, leading to what might be the most graphic and bluntly realistic gay sex scene I’ve seen on TV, and more extended male nudity in two minutes than Game of Thrones has had in its entire run. (Hey, there’s many ways I can sell you on watching this show.)
Max’s Grindr hookup is in recovery and, to escape the bachelorette party, Max tags along to a meeting. Soon he’s going through his own steps to recovery, which we learn stems from his addiction to his relationship with Lainey, whose codependency is destroying his life the way that a hardcore drug dependency would.
When Lainey, out of jealousy, reveals to the recovery group that Max isn’t a substance addict, he goes on a crystal meth bender that ends with a tweaking monologue in his kitchen that is easily one of the most riveting feats of acting I’ve seen on TV this year. Outrageous, hilarious, disturbing—Max Jenkins is a revelation. But this batshit tale is only one kind of story High Maintenance tells.
We meet all kinds of people over the course of the season—episode three, “Grandpa,” is even told from the perspective of a dog—with the likes of Amy Ryan, Dan Stevens, and Orange Is the New Black’s Yael Stone guest starring as an array of New Yorkers, each who smokes weed for an array of reasons. And we learn so much about our own perceptions and biases by our transient introductions to them.
The people we might assume are normal or conservative are the craziest and most disturbed of us all. Those people you thought might be odd or maybe even deranged? They seem to just enjoy some beautiful solitude.
It’s human nature to perform when you feel like others are watching, altering behavior—even if just-so slightly—in an attempt at control over what people might think of us. Here, we see people behaving as they would when they think no one is watching. It’s fascinating, often unsettling, and, through the ganja gaze of High Maintenance, hilarious.