Though High Maintenance depicts New Yorkers of all walks of life, it has always taken an affectionately sarcastic approach to depicting the young, upwardly mobile creative class (some might call them “hipsters” or “millennials,” but I’m purposely avoiding the connotations or issues with both of those labels). Series creators Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair never stoop to outright mockery, but they definitely poke fun at the foibles and eccentricities of these characters, while also going out of their way to extend humanity to them. It would be too easy, and not very productive, just to make fun of folks for their pretentiousness, or their internet-buzzword-laden vocabulary, or their clothes, or their speech patterns. Instead, they ride the line between warmth and teasing, eventually landing in a comfortable middle ground that allows for the widest possible display of empathy.
Following last week’s expansive portrait of a city in mourning, “Fagin” is a more typical episode of High Maintenance, complete with relatively low-stakes human drama. It features two stories that are connected by tangible qualities: a neighborhood (Bushwick), weed, and a pet boa constrictor. Both stories are in conversation with each other, but aren’t neatly intertwined. Blichfeld and Sinclair (along with co-writers Rebecca Drysdale and Isaac Oliver) adopt an affectionately sarcastic tone for both stories, while still retaining compassion for its subjects.
The first story features two middle-aged parents, Sharon (Marcia DeBonis) and Ron (Ray Anthony Thomas), visiting their daughter, Claire (Amanda Debraux), in the city. Claire has set up an Airbnb for them in a Bushwick loft. Though Sharon and Ron appreciate Claire’s gesture, they find the loft to be, well, lacking in certain areas. It’s messy, the bathroom door doesn’t open all the way, and oh yeah, there’s a pet snake named Fagin slithering in a tank. Still, they initially make the best of a less-than-ideal situation, and spend time with their daughter and her hip friends. The parents and the kids end up in the loft, smoking the Guy’s weed, and having a nice time.
But when the kids leave, the parents decide to have their own fun, which mostly amounts to getting even more stoned, grabbing ice cream from the bodega, playing Bubble Hockey, and having sex in the loft. They run into some trouble with a nosy neighbor (Dawn McGee) who suspects they’re Airbnb lodgers, but manage to skirt around it by giggling their way through the confrontation. It’s only when Ron realizes in the middle of the night that Fagin has gotten loose that he insists they move to a hotel, but they allow Claire to believe that they’re still staying in the loft.
The relatively straightforward story ends up being a fantastic showcase for High Maintenance’s details-driven approach. Blichfeld and Sinclair have fun capturing Bushwick street art (including street performer Pinky, a recurring presence since the early days of the webseries) and millennial attitudes by way of their boomer parents (“Claire says there is no such thing as gender, so what the hell do I know?” Sharon remarks to Rob at one point). But the chemistry between Sharon and Ron feels lived-in, even though it’s seen in snapshots. They fret about the neighborhood, complain about spending so much money on dinner, and yet still have their own routine. They’re genuinely nice without coming across as idealized parents. They clearly don’t understand Claire’s lifestyle (apart from the drugs), but they support it anyway because the other choice would be to step back and not be involved in their child’s life at all. They’re just well-intentioned people stumbling into a world they don’t fully grasp who come out the other side mostly unscathed.
The second story involves a politically active feminist meetup hosted by couple Molly (Molly Knefel) and Brenna (Brenna Palughi). It opens on an active discussion about the next steps the group should take and how to maintain the energy following the first Women’s March. (“It actually wasn’t very violent, which is not a positive thing!” says Brenna.) The scene is a hodgepodge of progressive discussion: Brenna insisting that they don’t praise the police for not beating up protesters, Molly announcing a Pakistani feminist Muslim guest speaker, and Rachel (Maddie Corman) admitting she bought a gun because of the “new paradigm.”
Needless to say, this type of setting is ripe for either too-earnest platitudes or incessant ridicule, and neither approach has any vested interest in capturing what these types of meetups are actually like. Instead, Blichfeld and Sinclair take on the sheer messiness of these groups, which will be familiar to anyone who has ever even glimpsed an activist meeting. These women talk passionately, but they also argue and disagree. When Rachel admits she bought a gun, one woman thinks she’s cool, but everyone else is appalled. Rachel doesn’t just want to bring lofty ideals to a gunfight, while Molly insists that guns are a destructive force in any context. It goes on like that.
The majority of the story tenderly skewers Brenna’s guilt that their group is not more “intersectional,” spurred partly by one woman bringing a black doll as a gift for their daughter Malia (who’s half-black). Molly insists that they will work on it in the future, but Brenna’s impulsive plan is just to invite women of color she sort of knows to assuage her fear of creating a mostly white feminist space. This is self-consciously niche territory, but it also allows for nuance that a lot of TV shows would shrug off. Molly thinks it’s certifiably weird that Brenna would just invite random Instagram friends over to their apartment, but Brenna’s good intentions cloud her judgment. Molly doesn’t say anything, and it doesn’t end in some accidentally racist moment so that Brenna gets her comeuppance. It’s just another awkward moment that exists in the background.
Molly eventually invites the Guy over so that they can buy weed, which causes a minor stir among the group because of his “intense male look” that might disrupt the “palpable feminine moon energy surging through the space right now.” The Guy, after being told to “act neutral” by Brenna, is understandably uncomfortable in the apartment as a woman stares at him while decrying the concept of male allies. He doesn’t say anything, though, and just goes through with the transaction while stumbling over proper pronouns.
Before the Guy leaves, he’s tasked to take a group picture, and it’s only then that he notices Fagin has made its way into their apartment. All hell breaks loose as the group struggles to figure out how to remove the snake from their apartment. Rachel decides to produce her gun so she can “shoot the snake,” which sends everybody into a state of panic. While everyone yells at Rachel to put down the gun, Molly rushes to the door to convince the babysitter to keep her daughter upstairs for 20 more minutes. It’s a farcical, genuinely funny scene, but it also captures the inherent chaos of these groups, albeit in an exaggerated form.
Eventually, Brenna picks up Fagin and they all make their way out of the apartment, but not before running into the nosy neighbor from the previous story. It’s a nice button that ties the stories together, and embodies the unspoken reality underpinning the series: It’s a small world; sometimes parents struggling with a loft and a feminist meeting gone awry can occur in the same apartment building, and both stories can contain insight and truth.
Seeds and Stems
• “Fagin” also features a brief interlude with the Guy delivering to a heartsick client who keeps asking about his ex, who is also a client. The Guy insists that he can’t divulge any information and leaves him with a hug and some positive words: “You’ve got a lot of stuff going on for you. You have a clearly defined style, you’re a great artist, you’ve got two ram skulls …”
• There’s too many funny one-liners in the second half of the episode to list here, but my favorite might be one of the feminists insisting that Katy Perry is actually JonBenét Ramsay. (“It’s the eyes!”)
• Ben Sinclair does some of his best acting in the feminist meeting scene, especially when the snake makes its presence known. He’s frightened, but also still actively trying not to “take up too much space.” It’s a sight to behold.