Things (and people) are interesting. That’s the simple and surprising thesis of High Maintenance, the loosely structured anthology series that just concluded its second season on HBO last month. The show chronicles the exploits of a Brooklyn pot dealer, a mellow, bearded thirty-something known only as The Guy, as he bikes around the city delivering weed to a never-ending, ever-changing stream of clients. Sometimes appearing on screen for only a few moments, he’s the thread that links the show’s otherwise disconnected episodes, stand-alone stories that each focus on a different set of characters. It’s an ingenious mechanism that enables co-creators Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair (who also plays The Guy) to paint an inviting, immersive portrait of New York City — one that encourages us to slow down and pay closer attention to the rich, often hilarious texture of everyday life.
Critics have long admired High Maintenance for its singular blend of hipness, realism, and humanity. It began as a web-only series on Vimeo in 2012, with short episodes shot on a budget of just one thousand dollars apiece. Gradually attracting a cult following, the series made the jump to HBO in 2016, and has since been renewed for a third season. It’s uproariously funny, but unlike other stoner comedies, High Maintenance exhibits a seriousness of artistic purpose that makes it as thought provoking as it is entertaining. The writing consistently demonstrates the same detailed characterization, dramatic intrigue, and creative plot twists of literary short stories and graphic novels, while the energetic cinematography recalls great moments in the history of documentary film — roving tracking shots of Brooklyn neighborhoods evoke the “city symphonies” of the 1920s (silent avant-garde films, like Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, that aimed to capture the frenetic rhythms of urban life), while intimate interior shots bring to mind the candor and warmth of 1960s cinema verite. It’s also a remarkably diverse show, featuring a broad cross-section of New Yorkers, who each turn to The Guy (whose flannel shirts, fixed-gear bike, and designer helmet epitomize Brooklyn coolness) for a sympathetic ear as they grapple with a variety of problems, some silly, some sad.
This last point especially has led critics to argue that the show’s power lies in its compassionate, nonjudgmental depiction of its all-too-human characters. To a certain extent, that’s true. The Guy’s easygoing, egalitarian vibe enables him to forge instant connections with his customers, becoming all things to all people as he looks past their idiosyncratic weaknesses, anxieties, and eccentricities. Characters as varied as a cross-dressing stay-at-home dad, a lonely agoraphobe living with his mother, and a distraught comedian regularly receive The Guy’s unconditional moral support (which often comes in the form of hugs, encouraging advice, and complimentary pot-laced edibles). Occasionally, The Guy also pitches in with housework, taking out the trash for a pair of neurotic parents, and even responds to medical emergencies, rushing to buy ice cream to save a stranger from diabetic shock.