All six episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
Being a standout television show in the era of “peak TV” requires a level of effortlessness that a lot of shows fail to achieve. Cliffhangers are forced, character deaths are orchestrated for optimal shock value rather than sensible storytelling, and twists are tacked on faster than their hashtags can trend online. It’s exhausting, and essentially impossible to keep up with all at once.
High Maintenance, HBO’s new half-hour comedy series based on the web series of the same name, is as effortless as they come. Using the framing device of a single weed dealer’s brief glimpse into the strange lives of his clients, the show is both experimental in its structure and off-the-bat enthralling. It’s the ultimate fly-on-the-wall story (stories, I should say) that not only feels different and exciting for its oddities, but smartly and shockingly poignant for its end-of-the-day takeaways from a group of diverse, happy, depressed, triumphant, and lonely people who just want a little weed.
The Guy (Ben Sinclair), as he’s mysteriously known to his clientele, is an average Brooklynite hoofing it between his customers across Manhattan, and sometimes dealing with a few personal problems along the way. Since he’s a vessel into High Maintenance‘s kaleidoscopic cast, Sinclair’s soft-spoken nature – along with the fact that most of his customers forget he’s even in the room – make him the perfect lynchpin for the show. He’s a delight to watch when he’s on screen, but it’s also paradoxically exciting when he leaves.
High Maintenance revels in his absence, although it always gives him time to elicit a few perfectly pitched-in-awkwardness reactions to his more demanding clients. Take the opening ten minutes of the pilot, where The Guy has to deliver product to a pair of large, intimidating men in a swanky apartment. The scene, dialogue, and directing are confident and hilarious and tonally dialled into a genre you think that co-creators Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld are running at recklessly, and then they pull the rug out from under you. That keeps happening in High Maintenance, and it’s never not surprising.
Later in the same episode, post initial shock of what headiness might be boiling under High Maintenance‘s easygoing veneer, The Guy has to deal with the fallout of losing his phone to an annoying old client (listed as “asshole” in his contacts), who himself is dealing with trying to break up with his oppressive, catty best friend. The episode swirls through out-of-nowhere shocks, clever developments, and one ultimately brilliant, sad epiphany in the throws of a Grindr-induced cocaine rampage. It flirts with incoherent zaniness, but there’s a humanity baked into High Maintenance‘s fast and furious, flip-book glimpse at these people’s lives, and it grounds the show in a traumatically relatable way.
Early-on, episodes are stacked with the show’s best humor, like a middle-aged man’s birthday party in episode two that turns out to be something that a few of his guests (Dan Stevens included) weren’t prepared for. Stevens’s straight character, who dresses effeminately and delivers approximately two sentences as to why, is one of the best examples of High Maintenance‘s ability to craft deeply realized characters and situations in barely any time at all.
In the middle of the season, a dog-centric episode about the love that a huge, fluffy pup named Gatsby has for his dog walker (Yael Stone) is, in a few words, the best Pixar short movie in years. Telling the story of Gatsby’s owner and his move from the suburbs to the Big Apple, the episode is mostly silent and – dog owners beware – quietly wrenching. It’s bolstered by nifty waist-high dog-vision camera work, but what seems gimmicky in the early minutes is sneakily clever by the time the hilarious dream-sequence credits roll, following what might be the most mature and devastating decision made by a dog in television history.
It hinted at High Maintenance‘s high quality esteem, but the fifth episode’s opening story about a lonely, Instagram-obsessed aspiring writer named Anja (Ismenia Mendes) is what solidified it for me. With so many varying glimpses and people and stories, High Maintenance is bound to lose you slightly on some (an uptight woman’s plight against her attempting-to-be-hip elderly father felt a bit too Sundance cutesy for me), but when it connects, it has the chance to hit back hard. It’s not something usually expected of any half-hour comedy, much less one whose conduit through each anthological arc is weed, but it is surprising in its readiness to be so darkly dramatic.
What it has to say – or what Sinclair and Blichfeld’s ultimate purpose was for depicting these specific people – is something that feels inherently personal to dissect. For those who just want a funny weed comedy, High Maintenance still packs in enough bizarre visuals and stoner humor to satisfy. Really, the show is a best-of-both worlds treat: it’s high concept, but lowbrow; experimental, but effortless; consistently hilarious, but spotted with strangely affecting, human moments. It’s strange to say it, even stocked with a cast who embodies such short-lived characters as well as this, but it’s the feel and vibe of the show and its mesmerizing turns that sticks with you longer than any particular person.
It’s about (here’s my opinion) how easy it is to forget that everyone you pass on the street has had a day of their own. Maybe the bottle you threw out was picked up by Chinese immigrants with a son who plays the theremin and is dating a girl from Berlin. Maybe your agoraphobic neighbor is collecting all of those LaCroix bottles for a reason. Maybe the girl who’s posting about her meals every hour on Instagram is closer to the brink than you think. High Maintenance isn’t saying for sure one way or the other, it’s simply reminding you to think, to pay attention, to look. It’s early in the fall TV season, but late in the year, and I’m ready to say it now: High Maintenance is one of the best TV shows of 2016.
Experimental, surprising, and abruptly poignant in ways I never saw coming, High Maintenance's effortless execution - one full of intensely relatable, transient New Yorkers - is the stuff that year-end lists are made of.