Kind and weird.
Those are the two words that come to mind when I think of Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair’s remarkable HBO series High Maintenance. Blichfeld is an Emmy award winning casting director known for her work on 30 Rock. Ben Sinclair is an actor and filmmaker who plays the lead in the show, known only as ‘The Guy,’ his name unmentioned on the show. This creative team was married to each other (before the series) and then divorced (during the series) but continue to work on the show side by side, together almost every day. The show started on the Web, as Vimeo exclusive content, and was then bought by HBO. HBO’s move reminds me a little bit of the Matador Records formula. I recall reading an interview with a Matador exec who mentioned signing a band because they had a great touring presence and were selling 100,000 copies of their records; it was a no-brainer to sign them. I imagine HBO felt the same about High Maintenance.
The conceit of the show is that each thirty minute or so episode follows ‘The Guy,’ who is a small level cannabis (and sometimes mushrooms) dealer in New York who generally bikes throughout the city to make his deliveries. Each episode focuses on his clients and what is going on with them. New York City is a major, constant character in the story, and along with The Guy, the stories revolve around them.
I have just finished binge watching all four seasons (I think 34 episodes) of High Maintenance on HBO back to back, and it’s been a wonderful ride. The show is kind in the depictions of ‘The Guy's’ clients. I’ve never seen a show that presented so many cool and different people and their varied lifestyles. There’s gay, straight, asexual, and polyamorous families. There are plenty of people of color, and all manner of economic levels are presented. The young and the elderly get a spotlight. There is even a superb episode, ‘Grandpa’ in the first season that is essentially shot from a dog’s perspective! There is another great episode. ‘Ex’ that deals with a painfully lonely, agoraphobic man who’s mother (and roommate) has passed away. The man gets some mushrooms and spends an adventure-filled day in the city out of his solitary apartment.
The Guy is a good dealer and has two sure fire rules. One, you need an introduction from someone you know to use his services. The one time he breaks that rule he gets robbed. Two, he comes to you, to your place, and does business behind closed doors. This is the window into the series showing you all the amazing clients, where and how they live. This is also where New York City comes in. I’ve often wondered why people would want to live in such a cramped, unforgiving space. But the New York City presented in High Maintenance is (generally) a judgement free area. This is where you go when you are the weird, the freak, the misunderstood, the queer, the other. You can live your life here the way you want and you can definitely meet like-minded people.
This is the kind of show that doesn’t spell everything out, and it is better for it. You never see where The Guy gets his supplies from. Season two starts off with ‘Globo,’ in which some kind of catastrophe has happened to the city. It’s never talked about specifically, but it hangs over the whole episode. The one constant, of course, is The Guy. He appears happy, is very even-tempered, funny and well liked. He smokes a lot of weed. Like, a lot. But he still manages to bike, upright, all over the city every day.
The show has made me re-think my own perspective on cannabis. Even though I’ve been a rock and roll musician most of my life, I never smoked. I’m no angel; I made up for it in alcohol, but I was never drawn to pot. High Maintenance shows how important weed is to many people. It is presented on the show as a major anxiety reducer, and there is plenty of anxiety in New York City. Compared to alcohol, weed on this show looks pretty good. His clients are not hopeless stoners. Most have jobs or a serious hustle(or two) going on. Later, when The Guy takes care of his friend’s RV vehicle, dubbed ‘Steve Harvey,’ he is shown smoking it up and driving all over the city, no problem. The one bad experience comes via The Guy’s veterinarian, who is wracked with guilt at having to euthanize sick pets. The vet decides to do mushrooms, and at first he does much better, but he overdoses himself fairly quickly and falls into psychosis.
So most trips are benevolent, though not all. The Guy himself has a wild trip after a bike accident where he breaks his arm. In hospital, he cranks up the pain meds and continues to use his weed vape pen. He is totally out of it. Other than that, there is a great Big Lebowski themed bowling sequence in one episode where a character takes too much Ketamine (not supplied by The Guy). Everything else is generally pretty mellow. One of my favorite episodes has to be Season three’s ‘Dongle,’ dealing with a new arrival from Puerto Rico, working construction trying to earn money for his sister. It’s a sweet story of the man falling in love with the bodega worker who serves him coffee every morning. Set on the Fourth of July, it also shows the moment The Guy is going to breakup with his girlfriend, a very damaged person he has been extra kind to. There’s no fireworks (literally), but you can see on The Guy’s face that it’s over.
The final episode of the fourth season, which just aired, is ‘Soup’ and is mostly about The Guy. Just like actor-creator Ben Sinclair, The Guy’s family is from Phoenix and are Jewish. He is hosting his niece (who is in NYC at Barnard) as they are snowed in before leaving to visit Phoenix. It’s a reminiscence about families and how uptight they can be. His niece is depressed and on Klonopin. In the end, they have a nice Hanukkah evening together and he tells his niece she is okay, that we are all just trying to maintain. At the airport, The Guy decides not to go, but he has signed over his dog, FOMO, as a support animal for his niece (FOMO loves his niece), and sends her off to Phoenix. She kisses him and says “Bye, Uncle Rufus!” Rufus. Who knew.
Kind and weird.
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