Photograph by David Russell, courtesy of HBO.

In "High Maintenance," New York City is Woke, Tense, Expensive, and Booby Trapped

The show's porous fourth wall makes its characters unforgettable, reminding you that there's more to every New Yorker than meets the eye.

by Gemma Sieff
Feb 5 2018, 6:05pm

Photograph by David Russell, courtesy of HBO.

In an early episode of High Maintenance, we meet Patrick, a pudgy agoraphobic hoarder played by Michael Cyril Creighton who lives with his dying mother in a small New York City apartment crammed with posters of Helen Hunt, sculptures made from La Croix seltzer cans, and unopened baggies of weed he buys mostly to keep in touch with his dealer (Ben Sinclair), on whom he has an unrequited crush. So vivid and endearing is this character that I think of him each time I see a pastel can of La Croix. And I’ve been thinking about Patrick over the past couple of weeks as I’ve been trying to write about the new season of the show in a professional way; it wriggles away from my powers of analysis, leaving me excitably tongue-tied and sort of stoned with pleasure. Each half-hour episode delights me, then I can scarcely remember why it was such a good time, only that I’d like to do it again soon.

Like Patrick, I feel erroneously cozy with the show's creators: Sinclair, who plays the pot dealer protagonist known only as the Guy, and Katja Blichfeld. I’ve spotted them in the wilds of Brooklyn a few times: outside the hot yoga studio above which they used to live and at the precious cafe-cum-nursery Stonefruit on Bedford Avenue, where they sat kitty-corner at the long table in the back, typing in Final Draft. They used to be married, now they’re consciously uncoupled collaborators, and Blichfeld dates a woman named Adele. The new season explores the dissolution of their relationship and their enduring codependency—the Guy and his ex are separated but live down the hall from each other, share a Dyson vacuum, and have yet to file divorce papers. The show’s tone, osmotic, inclusive and sliding-door-like, invites curiosity. Its fourth wall is weak.

High Maintenance was born on Vimeo in 2012 and graduated to HBO in 2016. (You can watch the previous season’s six episodes for television, as well as 19 slender, more steampunky webisodes, on HBO GO.) In the new season, the Guy is still a bike-riding flâneur with a portal into the living rooms and home lives of his clients, but his ride is more uphill and riddled with potholes. When an unspecified catastrophe hits New York at the start of the first episode, he and his girlfriend, Beth (Yael Stone), are still in bed. They read the bad news on their phones, she hits a bong, and he says he'd better get going, since it’s going to be a day of high demand. Receiving a stream of texts asking him to “hang out”—magic words that won’t incriminate him, should his phone ever get confiscated, with emojis of leaves and trees—he pedals through the trendier neighborhoods of Brooklyn and hikes and descends a hundred dingy stairwells. He doesn’t so much hang out as come through; he discreetly tokes a vape pen when he’s on his bike, not when he’s with clients.

This sequence sets the tone for the season, which features a lot of characters on the job, hustling to make ends meet. In the episode “Namaste,” the Guy gets a call from a friend inviting him over for a sauna party. Sure, he’d love to come, as soon as he finishes watching a man on the street try to lasso a fire hydrant. “It’s hard work, but it’s honest work,” the Guy says of the lasso-er. That assessment applies to his own long days; to those of Candace (Candace Thompson), a waitress, stuck late waiting for her last table to acknowledge a check gathering dust while she and a colleague fill ketchup bottles and (hint hint) switch off the music; to a busy realtor (Danielle Brooks) who dreams of buying her own place; to Damian, a dime bag–dealing OG in Bed–Stuy who might not be as trendy as the feminist cooperative Cannabitches or the “white boys [with] edibles, oils, vape pens” but will “come to your crib when you drunk dial at three in the morning and then wait outside for a half hour while you’re passed out in the bathtub”; and to a friend (Abdullah Saeed) the Guy encounters behind the wheel of a summoned Lyft, who offers his passengers “gum, mints, Snickers, Milky Way if you don’t do peanuts, waters and Capri Sun.”

“Wow,” says the Guy, “you’re giving a little extra.”

“Anything worth doing is worth doing well,” says the driver. They improvise a profit-sharing arrangement in which he chauffeurs the Guy, whose bike is out of action, to his evening house calls while simultaneously picking up customers. The gig economy can be MacGyvered.

The episode “Derech”—Hebrew for the straight and narrow—follows a young man, Baruch (Luzer Twersky), who has strayed from it. He has halfway left the Hasidic fold and is sleeping on a pal’s sofa, searching for “kosher jobs” on Craigslist. He goes out dancing and works up an appetite so voracious that he orders a cheeseburger and inhales the first bite before he’s paid for it, choking and collapsing in a deli at dawn. One of the performers from the nightclub (Darrell Thorne), a man covered in silver body paint and dressed like a creature out of Pan’s Labyrinth, is also in the deli and comes to Baruch’s aid, performing a tracheotomy with minimal fuss for an audience of queasy onlookers. “He says he’s a doctor,” says the deli owner who has dialed 911. A drag performer has, whether in a former life or on weekdays, this totally separate skillset, and High Maintenance, despite the brevity of its episodes, stays with characters long enough to reveal the superficiality of a snap judgment. There’s more to most New Yorkers than meets the eye, and even when you think you’re off the clock you might be on it.

This season also broaches a thornier side of substance use. At the end of the first episode, Beth, who works as a bartender, is pressing shots on whoever’s around. Unsteady on her feet, she demands that the Guy roll her a joint, and he questions whether that’s such a good idea, at which point she gets aggressive. It’s an ugly moment. In the fifth episode, the Guy is knocked off his bike and winds up in the hospital, dopey with painkillers official and self-prescribed. He ends up calling his not-yet-ex-wife (Kate Lyn Sheil) for help. She happens to be in his apartment at the time, in the grip of a craving, scrabbling through his stuff looking for scraps of cannabis (the real supply is in the fridge behind a combination lock). She doesn’t mention the craving when she brings him a change of clothes, but she does sneak off with his vape, then asks if he thinks she’s a drug addict, since her new girlfriend hates it when she smokes. The episode concludes with her back in his place, this time armed with the combination (her birthday backwards), palpably relieved to be getting high.

The show’s tone, osmotic, inclusive and sliding-door-like, invites curiosity. Its fourth wall is weak.

These scenes feel real and not like an after-school special. High Maintenance never lectures us, or embarrasses its characters, or makes them examples of anything. It has the extreme tolerance of beatitude or THC. This season’s New York City is woke, tense, expensive, and booby trapped. The show has always noticed the loneliness that marbles claustrophobia. It is newly interested in loss and heartbreak, which lends it depth as it traces the intersecting flight paths of city dwellers on solo trips.

For a fix to tide me over between episodes or in the hiatus between seasons, I’ve tried tuning into Instagram, where Sinclair, as @lookimhappypleasebelieveme, and Blichfeld, as @hellokatja, have robust followings. I followed Sinclair to Indonesia and watched him visit a temple, interact with wildlife and get his nails done. I listened to his melodica songs and Howard Zinn musings on high-end yoga retreats. I accepted his apology for committing an act of self-promotion at the Women’s March. Such raw material reminds a fan how fine the show’s writing and acting really are. Life in real time is an unsatisfactory imitation of art. I’m grateful for the hard, honest work that goes into low-key Chekhovian naturalism.

Ben Sinclair
High Maintenance
Katja Blichfeld