As a web series, High Maintenance relied upon many crucial elements — committed performances, tight editing, slack narrative structure — but none more important than a careful grip on tone. Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair’s slice-of-life sitcom has always featured pot-smoking urbanites struggling with personal issues both inconsequential and serious, from first-world problems to life-threatening situations. Yet, Blichfeld and Sinclair never condescend to any of their subjects for being caught up in the bullshit of the moment, even when they gently mock them for doing so. Instead, they adopt a deep-seated empathy toward every character who walked through the frame, and they don’t present it as a radical approach, but rather a basic act of creative decency. There may not be a better representation of the humanity inherent to High Maintenance than The Guy himself, the series’ connective tissue, a kind soul who wanders into people’s lives providing a service not accessible through legal means.
If there’s one exception to this rule, it’s the two characters at the center of the web series’ fourth episode, “Olivia.” Max (Max Jenkins) and Lainey (Heléne Yorke) are two obnoxious friends who speak almost exclusively in mean-spirited gossip and snarky asides, the kind of people who unconsciously provoke puke in the back of your throat upon hearing them speak for two minutes. They eventually steal from The Guy (Sinclair), who already listed them in his phone as “Assholes,” and he permanently blacklists them. So, it’s a curious choice for Max and Lainey to return as the subjects of High Maintenance’s first episode on HBO, seeing as they were mere window dressing in the original run, popping up for brief cameos in which they put their loathsome selves on display. Nevertheless, Blichfeld and Sinclair throw down the gauntlet with “Meth(od),” demonstrating their ability to express sympathy and compassion for even the most superficially irritating among us.
The episode primarily follows Max, who struggles to reject his codependent relationship with Lainey and engage with a more mature, like-minded group of people. It begins with him playing the prototypical “gay clown” to Lainey and her awful friends during a bachelorette pre-party as they get drunk. He eventually leaves to hook up with a guy named Sebastian (Colby Keller), who turns out to be in recovery. Max pretends to also be in recovery so that he can avoid Lainey, and soon enough, he begins attending Sebastian’s group meetings with fellow gay addicts. Though Max lies to get his foot in the door, he finds himself more at home with people in the group as they share stories of their struggles and preach encouragement, while simultaneously expressing disgust with Lainey’s rude, selfish behavior.
Blichfeld and Sinclair neatly reconfigure Max as a character dealing with a toxic long-term relationship, someone who’s been forced to be a completely different person. When Max is around Lainey, he leans into the gay stereotype to appease her and be the person she needs him to be, even if he ends up hurting himself in the process. But when he’s around Sebastian and his friends, he’s more relaxed and involved, happy to simply be on equal footing in a group as opposed to being the token. Midway through “Meth(od),” Max finally speaks at the meeting and discusses his addiction to “Crystal” (read: Lainey), finally explaining his problems with her in a safe space. It’s an impressive monologue, delivered impeccably by Jenkins, which details just how a person can get caught up in something seemingly innocuous that’s really much more damaging. It’s one thing to be friends with an occasionally selfish, irritating person; it’s another to have them emotionally drain you, take your money, and rely on you for every kind of support without once reciprocating it.
Of course, Lainey outs Max in the midst of his monologue, permanently alienating him from his new friends, costing him a potential job, and sending him into a drug spiral. We catch up with him in a dark room, high on meth, searching through boxes with an equally addled companion. Earlier in the episode, The Guy had accidentally dropped his phone on the street, and it’s at this moment that a strung-out Max picks it up. When The Guy calls his phone, Max tries to arrange some kind of exchange but ends up just spewing gibberish. “Hey man, get help,” The Guy says with frustrated sincerity, unaware that the help Max sought out has already rejected him.
If there’s one major issue with this story, it’s that Blichfeld and Sinclair don’t afford the same nuanced characterization for Lainey, who mostly remains an unambiguous monster throughout the episode, especially when she’s cruelly laughing and filming Max’s drug-induced mania. Their script actively makes a comparison between Lainey and drugs — at least in the sense that neither drugs nor Lainey will help matters — but that idea only crystallizes in the abstract. Onscreen, she’s just an awful person who’s blithely oblivious to her friend’s pain and desire to branch out. By the end of “Meth(od),” Lainey ultimately fulfills her toxic role in Max’s life: She’s feeding him Percocet while he recovers from burns because she threw coffee in his face. “I’m the luckiest boy in the world,” he says, numb and hollowed out. The circle is unfortunately complete.
Stems and Seeds:
- The B-story involves The Guy’s delivery to an aggressively macho client (KeiLyn Durrel Jones) and his friend Chauncey (Kevin Mambo). He approaches the door just as his client’s girlfriend angrily storms out. The client pushes him into doing a bong hit, forces him into awkward small talk, and then pays him in change. The Guy reluctantly takes the change and leaves the apartment. It’s later revealed that the client is a British actor and his friend is his coach, and they’re testing out accents for an upcoming role.
- For fans of the web series, the agreeable yet unpredictable Chad (Chris Roberti) also makes an appearance. He’s living in the dressing room of a theater and lets The Guy use his phone. When The Guy asks him if he wants to use his shower, he enthusiastically agrees.
- In the darkest joke of the episode, The Guy tries to lock his bike to a memorial pole when he doesn’t find other spots and gets called out on it by a woman on the block. Though he tries to justify it by saying the victim would have been sympathetic, he eventually relents.
- The song that plays during Max’s graphic sex scene with Sebastian is “Take Me With You” by Monika.
- Max’s funniest line of the night: When Lainey shows him a picture of an entire family in wheelchairs, he mutters, “You’re a regular Vivian Maier …”
- Lainey is in Max’s phone as “Cunty.”