High Maintenance: A Buzz Worth Maintaining

HBO’s new comedy series wandered into pay cable from the dank world of Vimeo.
Film + TVReviews
High Maintenance: A Buzz Worth Maintaining

HBO’s new comedy series wandered into pay cable from the dank world of Vimeo.

Words: Jon Pruett

photo by Craig Blankenhorn

September 11, 2016

Ben Sinclair in “High Society” / photo by Craig Blankenhorn

Drugs are bad, right? Or are they awesome? As we inch closer to legalized marijuana nationwide, it’s no longer exactly clear. Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair’s High Maintenance, which began life as a Vimeo series but will be debuting on HBO on September 16, doesn’t address this debate either, but rather paints the characters that float through a bicycle-messenger/weed-dealer’s path as a cross-section of NYC unified by their love of the good shit.

Not only is High Maintenance one of the best shows born online, but it also really explores how much can be accomplished in short-form storytelling. How short? Original episodes are as short as five minutes long. So far, the longest episode has been maybe twenty minutes long. Think that matters? It doesn’t. High Maintenance drops you immediately into a world with Sinclair as The Guy, an especially mellow (but not formulaic) dealer with a batch of regular clients, specific rules, hang-ups, and a non-judgmental outlook that helps balance out the erratic nature of his drug trade. In fact, the show isn’t even really about him. He’s just The Guy.

The show isn’t trying to make any commentary about pot smokers, dope culture, “following the money,” or any of that. In fact, weed is a sort of red (green?) herring that unites the characters, and if the show does anything unique regarding drug use, it’s that it unveils why certain people are drawn to it, what place it has in their lives, and, often, how inconsequential it is in the larger arc of life’s events. It’s not Half Baked.

At times, High Maintenance feels like Steven Soderbergh at his most cinematic.

The real key to High Maintenance is how good the acting is, how well-put-together the show is, and the unexpected emotional resonance of these snippets. A greater portrait of these people begins to unfold across the episodes—one that’s not only funny, but also honest, and sometimes a little bit heartbreaking. Not only do you get a traumatized comedian (played by Hannibal Buress), but also a lonesome man with a striking Helen Hunt fetish (Michael Cyril Creighton), an asexual magician (Avery Monsen), and a fitness fanatic on a cosmic spiritual path (Jordan Dean). This last episode is so well edited—with its wordless framing of this particular guy’s work-out regime, coupled with his gallery-ready collage art compositions—that it feels like Steven Soderbergh at his most cinematic. Sure, that’s high praise, but this show is something else: a combination of Girls (Lena Dunham gets a shout-out in the show, as if to remind us that we’re watching something take place in the real world) and the emotional upheavals of Raymond Carver’s short stories.

Just how this show will manifest as it grows to a full thirty minutes on a major cable giant is still up in air, but HBO has pretty excellent track record for letting the creators keep their vision intact. Until that rapidly approaching time, take a deep breath. Inhale. FL