High Maintenance Season-Premiere Recap: Phantasmagoria of Despair

High Maintenance

Season 2 Episode 1
Editor’s Rating 4 stars

High Maintenance

Season 2 Episode 1
Editor’s Rating 4 stars
Photo: HBO

It’s understandable why television would want to engage with Our Current Political Moment, but that doesn’t mean it’s advisable. We live in a time rife with uncertainty, when outrage and despair feel like the two dominant modes of expression. Barring a full cultural disconnect, there’s no sure way to decrease the rate at which we receive, react, and process every new piece of information that comes into our mobile devices. In the past 18 months, awareness often feels like a double-edged sword: How vulnerable and shitty are you willing to feel just to be up on the latest national and/or global injustice?

So, excuse me if I feel pangs of dread every time I see a TV show (or film, or pop song, or art installation, or virtual-reality performance piece) try to earnestly take on the zeitgeist. Even correcting for good intentions, and assuming artistic good faith, most of the examinations of our sociopolitical hellscape seem to be nothing more than an exercise in patting oneself on the back. Surely it’s possible to consider the Way We Live Now without abandoning nuance, relying on cheap didacticism, or flattering the ideologically like-minded, but it’s unclear if mass media dependent on advertising and subscription can effectively do so. It’s possible I’m being unfair toward progressive artists who want to tackle the culture head-on, but I’m severely allergic to anything that just expects me to solemnly nod in affirmation or clap in agreement.

Given my personal bias against these types of stories, it’s a testament to Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair’s talents that the second season premiere of High Maintenance didn’t make me break out in hives. “Globo” takes place in the aftermath of an unspecified tragedy — though, as Willa Paskin suggests at Slate, it might be set on the day after Donald Trump’s election — as various people in New York City go about their business while panic pulses in the background. This includes the warm, welcome presence of the Guy (Sinclair), who realizes that seemingly everyone on his contact list wants to get high to distract themselves from the world. “It’s not so bad out there,” he reassures a particularly distraught client, but no one seems to agree.

Blichfeld and Sinclair make two great choices in “Globo” that save it from the pitfalls typically befitting this kind of episode. The first is a simple one: It doesn’t label or explicate the event itself, preferring to focus on the various reactions. Though some might say that it’s cowardly not to explicitly connect the tragedy to a real-life referent, Blichfeld and Sinclair illustrate the depressing frequency at which they occur by refusing to give it a name. The downside of everyone being more connected is that everyone feels implicated by the news, even if it has nothing to do with you.

The second, more interesting choice is to follow three stories of people who specifically aren’t affected by the news, at least in that current moment. But instead of depicting a culture of apathy, Blichfeld and Sinclair capture the uneasy feeling of trying to focus on personal goals or immediate day-to-day realities while the larger shit has hit the fan. It’s a fresh angle and leads to fruitful results.

The first story is about Cody (Joshua Schubart), a guy committed to weight loss who finds himself feeling guilty about focusing on his accomplishments rather than on the recent horror. He wants to post pictures of his fitness goals, but when he sees strangers crying or immersed in the news, he thinks twice. After a spin class in which he’s the only person in the room, Cody leaves the gym to find brief shots of chaos in the street: two people in an argument, a woman comforting her seatmate, and a group headed to a protest. Cody then catches a glimpse of one of the protest signs that features Desmond Tutu’s famous quote, “If you are neutral in times of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

Is Cody really neutral if he has nothing to add to the current moment? Does concentrating your energy on your immediate life mean that you have chosen the oppressor by default? Blichfeld and Sinclair don’t answer those questions. Instead, Cody eventually caves and binge-eats to feed the guilt and shame about his lack of engagement, which says a lot about the varied reactions people feel in a hostile environment.

The second story involves a woman (Natalie Joy Johnson) and two men having a threesome in a hotel, blissfully unaware of what’s going on outside in the world because their phones are dead. The weakest and shortest story of the episode, the trio has an indulgent day in the hotel, fucking and eating room service with reckless abandon. It’s only when the Guy rolls through that all three realize what has happened while they spent the day living it up. They share a joint on the balcony, exchanging bromides about the tragedy, only for the unnamed woman to suddenly realize that the two men are in fact brothers, throwing an extra wrinkle on an otherwise strange day.

The final story is also fairly truncated, but it features the most perspective in the episode. Blichfeld and Sinclair follow Luiz, a busboy and bar-back who works in a fancy restaurant that caters to talkative urbanites who wax poetic about Elon Musk drinking blood smoothies and snottily declare “worst birthday ever” in response to the news. As Luiz munches on some truffle fries that one table hasn’t touched, he learns that he has to pick up his child after work at 4 a.m. from his sister’s place. Luiz isn’t tapped into the “end times.” He just wants to finish his shift and get home.

But before he can head home, he must get his take from the bartender Beth, who has taken the liberty of downing shot after shot because of the day’s news. As a result, she’s loud and a little obnoxious, even with the presence of the otherwise cool the Guy at the bar. When she finally hands Luiz his money, she extends an offer to smoke a joint, which Luiz declines. It’s then that she starts acting overly familiar with Luiz’s so-called “despair” because they’re both immigrants. She starts loudly castigating the Guy as a “straight, white cisgendered man” because he suggests that maybe she doesn’t need a joint on top of all the liquor, and then makes an awkward play on words about Luiz: “His panic is that he’s … Hispanic!” It’s an insensitive, just-shy-of-racist moment that barely fazes Luiz, mostly because he wants to get the hell out of there.

Luiz finally picks up his son and carries him to the subway. He entertains the boy with a balloon he picked up from the restaurant (the only one that didn’t feature words like “Happy Fucking Birthday” or “Cunt”) while everyone else in the train car initially tries to ignore them. Blichfeld and Sinclair focus in on the tired, worn faces of construction workers and nurses getting off or heading to their next shift, people who aren’t necessarily enthralled by the prospect of hearing an extremely awake kid play with a balloon right in front of them.

Yet, the beauty of High Maintenance is its depiction of a humane urban environment, one that can appeal to the better angels of their collective nature. As Luiz’s son bounces around the car, bopping the balloon to the fellow passengers, everyone politely or enthusiastically joins in, enjoying the sight of a carefree child. It’s a little too pat of a button, but it’s still a nice, heartwarming moment to bask in, even if it’s a little bit idealized. Sometimes flashes of kindness are what people need to enter a new day.

Stems and Seeds

The episode opens with the Guy’s nightmare of going to a barbershop and having his beard ripped from his face. The nightmare features Kate Lyn Sheil as the barber and Greta Lee reprises her role as Homeless Heidi.

The two songs featured in the episode: “Money Money Money” by Bomba Estéreo plays over a montage of the Guy delivering to clients, and “Too Young to Burn” by Sonny & the Sunsets plays over the end credits.

There’s a really well-judged moment when a homeless man walks past two friends eating mussels and asks if he can have some. The friends reluctantly agree, and the homeless man goes to town on them, only for a waitress to chastise the man and send the mussels back. Luiz picks up the mussels and, in Spanish, remarks to a fellow busboy what just occurred. “I don’t know why they wouldn’t let him have it,” the busboy responds.

High Maintenance Recap: Phantasmagoria of Despair