HBO’s High Maintenance Carries on the Legacy of the Web Series

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L-R: Heléne Yorke and Max Jenkins in the High Maintenance premiere. Photo: HBO

Friday night at 11 p.m. is the perfect time for HBO to air the pot-themed High Maintenance, and not just because that’s when some viewers may opt to start their weekends with a joint and/or some edibles. There’s something invitingly low-key about this half-hour dramedy that makes it ideal to settle into on the latter edges of evening, after the dishes are done, or the kids are asleep, or for those legitimately still living the high life.

While the sensibility and a few characters come directly from the webisodes that inspired this series, all of which can be viewed on HBO On Demand, HBO Go, and HBO Now, every one of the first season’s six installments effectively functions as a stand-alone entity. That’s because High Maintenance — created for the web and HBO by Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld, who also wrote and directed every episode — flows from character to character and situation to situation in ways reminiscent of Robert Altman’s Short Cuts or Richard Linklater’s Slacker. It doesn’t play like a series so much as a parade of moving-picture short stories.

Every episode features Sinclair playing a never-named dope delivery guy who bikes his product — primarily marijuana, but, as he notes, occasionally mushrooms — to numerous clients in Manhattan and its boroughs. But the weed is just what initially gets us through all those front doors. High Maintenance is really about the rooms where these other people’s lives happen. The result is a collection of lovely, detailed portraits of diverse city dwellers, one that acknowledges their individual idiosyncrasies and their shared desire to shake off the weight of everyday banality. It seems fair to assume that at least some of these men, women, and animals — yes, I said animals, more on that in a sec — are dependent on the drugs Sinclair’s dealer is peddling. But High Maintenance subtly reminds us that contemporary culture offers all kinds of other habit-forming means of escape: nicotine, group sex, social media, day raves, serial lying, and good old-fashioned human companionship. New York: It’s the city that never sleeps, and a place where everyone — regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, or even species — is desperate for some kind of buzz.

About those animal and species: Yes, the third episode of High Maintenance is told entirely from the perspective of a large, shaggy dog named Gatsby, which sounds like exactly the kind of idea that would come out of a stoner’s mouth on a puff of skunky air. (“Duuuude, what if we make an episode that’s, like, an indie version of The Secret Life of Pets? That would be soooo cooool.”) It’s also a wonderfully original, moving half-hour that turns the relationship between Gatsby and his energetic dog walker (Yael Stone of Orange Is the New Black, who also appeared in the web version of High Maintenance) into one of the sweetest love stories on TV this year.

Several well-known actors show up in this first season, including Amy Ryan, Dan Stevens, Hannibal Buress, and, briefly, Gaby Hoffmann, and there are numerous understated, gorgeous performances, both from veteran character actors who will look familiar (Peter Friedman is wonderful as a grandfather determined to stay hip) and newcomers who aren’t well-known yet. (Shazi Raja is convincingly conflicted as a Muslim college student leading a double life, and Ismenia Mendes switches from absurd to utterly shattering as an aspiring writer who can’t stop taking selfies long enough to pursue her craft.) Throughout, Sinclair and Blichfeld adhere to the same guiding thematic principle: We always think we know someone based on what’s visible on the surface. But we are always, always wrong. 

TV has produced scads of shows about life in New York City. In fact, there’s an episode of this series  in which several recent ones — Girls, Sex and the City, Broad City, and, in a meta-turn, High Maintenance itself — are all hilariously referenced. But High Maintenance stands out, not just because it’s on the front end of what is apparently a reefer TV trend, but because it’s so precisely made and has such an ambling, open heart. You could say it’s a show about depressives or semi-depressives all seeking their next pot-induced haze. But really, it’s about people, and sometimes dogs, just trying to cut through all the fog and find each other.