For most of the viewing public, the HBO debut of half-hour “High Maintenance” represents the show’s first season on television. But for fans of the New York City-centric series about selling weed, this is technically its seventh. “High Maintenance” began as a web series distributed through Vimeo in 2012; a few years down the line, Vimeo began to fund the webisodes. Web series are often (and understandably) unable to transcend the low-budget, catch-as-catch-can sensibility of producing on the cheap. Not so with “High Maintenance,” which stood out from the get-go as a polished, high-quality product amid a bunch of hash.
At the series center are creators Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld, who write, direct, and produce every episode. Sinclair also stars as the nameless lead, the Guy, a bearded, balding bicyclist whose talent is less about the hustle and more about finding a way to feel comfortable in any and every social scene. But more than being about the Guy, or the business of selling an illegal but increasingly culturally accepted drug, “High Maintenance” is about the living fabric of New York City — with its fragmented social networks, rich cultural pockets, new money, and old infrastructure. The Guy, who has to do his business in-person, enters the lives and homes of a vast cross-section of New Yorkers, all united by one phone number and a desire for a specific kind of fix.
The web series presented vignettes of indifferent length, ranging from the duration of a music video to a standard sitcom. Each was given the name of a character that wasn’t quite in the episode but overheard, or remarked upon. And because the episodes came out in fits and starts, there was no real serialization to them; instead, the vignettes layered on top of each other, sometimes introducing an entirely new character, and sometimes pulling on a thread in another story to draw an unexpected throughline.
The HBO version of “High Maintenance” can’t quite keep up this format, but attempts to stay true to the original structure with 30-minute episodes that contain sometimes one, two, or three stories. The only constant is The Guy, who will always turn up at some point to graze the bubbles of the characters’ existence. But viewers from the web series will recognize several returning characters, such as Yael Stone’s free-spirited Beth and Dan Stevens’ cross-dressing Colin.
To Sinclair and Blichfeld’s credit, the HBO series presents its new season as one that can be appreciated by both first-time viewers and long-time fans. It builds on what’s happened before, but there are few inside jokes and veiled references — just the continued dedication to finding intimacy with these characters.
And it is an awe-inspiring dedication. “High Maintenance” is curious about every character in a scene — not just the bored affluent couple obsessing over their infant daughter, but also the disheveled immigrant collecting cans and bottles from their trash for their paltry five-cent deposits. It’s an unmistakable privilege for Sinclair and Blichfeld to be able to present a show about an illegal activity as an amusing hobby, but the new HBO episodes are more aware of the class and racial discrepancies in New York City than ever. Indeed, the series is so invested in the lived experiences of the world that it even tells a story from the perspective of a dog new to the city.
And though some of these characters’ realities are quite sad, “High Maintenance” approaches the idiosyncratic denizens of New York with a lighthearted touch, finding droll amusement and even gentle appreciation for the otherwise weird, pathetic, and lonely New Yorkers who simply want a bit of weed.
This is not a comedy that’s exclusively for New Yorkers, but it’s certainly more recognizable to anyone familiar with the particular life that straddles gentrification, street fashion, expensive cups of Instagrammable coffee, and the thunderous racket of the rapidly decaying subway. In a nod to the most quintessentially New York experience, there’s even a scene where The Guy tries to bike down a block only to discover that “Girls” is filming across the street. (Lena Dunham gamely cameos, from a distance.)
Perhaps “High Maintenance” owes its slow, appreciative, and focused sensibility to its drug of choice. But even if marijuana and New York City aren’t your drugs of choice, the show has a lot to offer. It’s a program that weaves together a delicate cross-section of real, flawed humans stuck in the ever-present now, creating a portrait of a city, an era, and this fleeting moment in time — adult coloring books, expensive vapes, binge-watched television shows, and all.