"Tick" embodies two of High Maintenance's most enduring qualities: self-awareness and compassion. A series about mostly white, mostly socially mobile pot smokers living in New York has the potential to be disastrously myopic, but High Maintenance rarely if ever falls into this trap because it has a sense of humor about its subjects, poking fun at their affectations and behavior. Crucially, the series never devolves into smug potshots, but instead it engages with difference from a place of appreciation, even if it's tempered by proverbial spitballs from the back of the classroom. It's a tough balancing act, but one that the series pulls off regularly, and "Tick" is the best example yet.
The episode features two stories, the first involves aging Asian couple Joon (Kristen Hung) and Wei (Clem Cheung), who earn their living as waste pickers in Brooklyn. We're first introduced when the Guy walks while Wei is picking up trash from a ritzy, gentrified neighborhood. We watch as the two of them bring the borough's garbage to a landfill and then retire peacefully to their modest yet comfortable apartment, which stands in sharp contrast to previous apartments seen on the series. Series creators Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair communicate a familiar intimacy between Joon and Wei during their conversations in the apartment, which feature a steady rhythm of bickering that never once devolves into a fight. These are people who have been doing this for a long time.
Soon we learn that their son (Stephen Lin) is a professional musician/avant-garde performance artist who lives in Berlin with his hip girlfriend. While in town for a show, the four get lunch and the unspoken tensions between Joon, Wei, and their son appear immediately. Joon is supportive and joyful of their son's success, basking in the glow of his fame and very appreciative of his girlfriend. Wei, on the other hand, is decidedly reserved, only speaking to his son to exchange curt statements about his health and money. It's a fairly common dynamic between immigrants and their first-generation children, but take note that Wei's strained relationship with his son has another component: He is an amateur musician, and he keeps his instrument locked underneath his bed.
The second, more whimsical story in "Tick" falls more in line with the show's superficially hipster image, if only because it involves day ravers and uptight parents. Jim (Peter Friedman), an aging former workaholic who actively tries to be up on millennial slang, spends most of his time attending day raves and getting high. His daughter Quinn (Bridget Maloney), her husband (Paul Thureen), and their baby live upstairs in his brownstone and struggle to adjust to Jim's lifestyle. Quinn tries to engage by joining him at a rave, but finds it to be a little much, especially after seeing her dad try so hard to be "young" and "cool." Tensions eventually come to a head when Quinn comes home to find Jim and the Guy getting high while the kettle is smoking on the stove and her child asleep in the house.
On the surface, it's a difficult plotline to pull off without dipping into outright condescension or arrogant grandstanding. There are three or four different traps in this setup: a Boomer using phrases like "on fleek" and "cray," Brooklyn parents constantly kvetching about their child, and of course, the most outrageous hippie shit this side of a drum circle. Blichfeld and Sinclair deserve praise for avoiding the easy pitfalls, but they deserve even more for mining a compelling story and treating everyone, even the glitter-covered ravers, with at least a modicum of respect.
Jim might be trying a little too hard, but he gets legitimate, revitalizing joy from raving and being around a younger crowd. He explains to the Guy that he spent 30 years divorced from his children's lives and working like a madman, so he's determined to embrace youth and life with all of his heart. Though Jim's antics might be a little forced, they become sweet with a tinge of the melancholic once he opens up about his previous life.
Blichfeld and Sinclair go to lengths to demonstrate that Quinn and her husband aren't just lame yuppies, either. They crack wise and roll their eyes, but they're generally supportive of Jim's life, especially since he's putting them up in his apartment and helping them with their baby. When Quinn blows up at her father for leaving the kettle on, it's a legitimate grievance and not just a minor issue blown out of proportion, unlike the Guy accidentally throwing away a bottle that contained the tick that bit their child. Their argument is a generational one, and "Tick" understands both sides of the divide. The episode concedes that both sides have their flaws, even as the scene's framing suggests that Quinn has the literal higher ground. It even ends with the two coming to a place of peace over text: Quinn and Jim wind up joking around about emojis, all-caps text usage, and GIFs. Again, the fact that this scene is sweet and not cloying is a testament to the High Maintenance's masterful control of tone.
Contrast this second story with the shorter, more reserved first one. Blichfeld and Sinclair understand that communication and relationships function differently in various communities, but they depict these difference without an ounce of liberal back patting. Joon and Wei are not standard High Maintenance subjects and "Tick" acknowledges that, especially in a key moment when Wei picks up trash in the background of a shot that features Quinn and her husband entering their home. Joon and Wei's story is an attempt to expand the show's purview to communities in New York that don't always receive the TV treatment, much like Eesha's story a couple weeks ago. Yet it doesn't read like tokenism, but rather an extension of Blichfeld and Sinclair's empathetic approach. Joon and Wei may engage with their children in clipped, passive-aggressive statements rather than dramatic arguments, but the problems on display are accessible and familiar, largely because modern human struggles overlap across cultures and races.
Put it another way: The final shot of the Guy stopping to watch Wei play his instrument on the subway platform wonderfully captures the humanistic nature of High Maintenance — how people with open hearts can reasonably engage with difference. It's a brief, genuinely touching moment that evokes what this series tries to accomplish week in and week out.
Stems and Seeds
- Quinn appeared in the very first episode of the High Maintenance web series as a stressed-out personal assistant. The Guy delivers weed to her that she plans to bring to her boss, but she's stressed out and in the process of Klonopin withdrawal, so she and the Guy wind up smoking together in a hotel bathroom.
- There's a great moment between Jim and Quinn over text when Jim apologizes and Quinn starts to write, "Sorry to put you on blast before," referencing Jim's use of slang in their argument, but when Jim promises to be a better grandfather and to smoke less pot, she just writes, "Thanks." Blichfeld and Sinclair don't put too much emphasis on it, but it's a really nice touch that acutely captures the nuance of text-based communication.
- In a short scene, the Guy sees a guy sleeping on a chair on the street. He goes over to ask if he's okay, but two hipsters from across the street yell at him to say that they "called" the chair first and are just waiting for the stranger to wake. The Guy is appropriately disgusted by their behavior.
- If you enjoyed Peter Friedman's portrayal of Jim, seek out his performances in Todd Haynes's Safe and Tamara Jenkins's The Savages. The guy is a terrific character actor.
- "As far as I can tell, these people spend everyday they're not at Burning Man decompressing from or getting ready for Burning Man," Quinn's husband says about Jim's day-raver friends.
- "I know people drafted into Vietnam who reacted more calmly than those two about that tick," Jim jokes about Quinn and her husband's reaction to the Guy throwing out their tick.
- "Only in Brooklyn can you smoke pot all day with your friends and call it a preschool for adults."