The Quiet, Ephemeral Beauty of HBO's High Maintenance

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The Quiet, Ephemeral Beauty of HBO's <I>High Maintenance</I>

When television is written with intention and congruity, an unspoken social contract is developed between the show and its audience about the limitations and possibilities within the world of the show. For example The Good Place and Apple TV’s Ted Lasso create realities in which characters habitually exchange their observational inner thoughts, atone for their personal shortcomings, and triumph over apathy. The nature of these shows communicate that there are people who strive for self-compassion and that these people are worthy of our attention. Because characters have the opportunity to develop before our eyes, audience members are also secondhandedly prompted to cultivate their own compassion for people, fictional and otherwise, who are flawed yet strive to improve. Characters within these shows aren’t intrinsically or terminally shallow. Rather they are bit by bit revealed to be people who were once underloved, who fear accountability or who have long pocketed their unaddressed insecurities. It is not merely the gradual emotional evolution that makes shows like these such nourishing entertainment, it is the glimpse they offer into deeply, interior human moments and feeling.

Another show that champions this type of character work and ethos of solicitude is High Maintenance, a beloved web series turned television show that HBO recently. decided not to offer a fifth season. On the surface High Maintenance is a NYC set show about The Guy (Ben Sinclair) a soft-spoken, big-bearded, bike-riding white weed dealer. But truly The Guy is a conduit between the audience and the real stars of the show, the people he sells to. Episodes of High Maintenance are these bite-sized vignettes in which the experiences of a revolving door of New Yorkers are showcased.

In Season 2’s “Namaste,” Danielle Brooks plays Regine, a Black realtor who navigates the tension between her racial identity and vocational aspirations in an increasingly gentrified Brooklyn. In Season 3’s “Payday,” comedian Margaret Cho and Hye Yun Park play a BDSM-inclined couple who exchange money for sexual favors. There are episodes about an old couple that trades in recycled plastic for money, a bereaved agoraphobe, aspiring artists, political organizers, alternative church, an elderly fashion model, an asexual person who dates a professional intimacy coach, and a Hasidic man who departs from his community and dances the night away.

Delicious mad libs aside, people in this show are portrayed with this undeniable narrative distance that manages to capture these granular details about them without over-enunciating any clever, thoughtful flourishes that surface. It may come as no surprise that a show in which marijuana is a connective tissue between our phantom protagonist and the people who patronize him also makes room for anxieties and neuroses to be acknowledged and quietly honored. But what I find especially affecting about High Maintenance is the way its co-creators, Katja Blichfeld and The Guy himself, Ben Sinclair, engender this distinct, subtext-heavy narrative culture that cultivates, and demands even, habitual observation. The structure of High Maintenance rewards you for noticing these seemingly illegible, insular parts of people that aren’t primarily communicated through dialogue.

In Season 2’s “Globo” a plethora of white thirty-somethings send the The Guy zipping around Brooklyn as they respond anxiously to the news of an upsetting national event (the election of one-term President Donald J. Trump). While the show doesn’t wholly dismiss the fear of these white liberals, it pays particular attention to a houseless man who is reprimanded for touching the food of a dining couple and Luiz, an overworked, underpaid bus boy who at the end of a long shift picks up his son and offers him a lavender balloon (globo). While Luiz and his son sit with various other POC late-night train riders, the balloon is bounced back and forth between passengers in this spontaneous moment of play. Although it is left unsaid, Luiz’ experiences of the day have more harrowing personal threats than those that the white brunch-goers he serves lament about. But High Maintenance shows it to us, trusts us to recognize that tension therein and moves on. Rather than winking at us, the show throws its arm over shoulder, points at some kerfuffle across the street and asks “well what do you see happening over there?”

Without being preachy or feigning omnipotence, the show’s structure gestures over and over again towards the various particularities of people by offering us roughly 15-minute time frames to witness them. Ironically, these vignettes divorce viewers from the desire to form reductive snap judgements. The combination of The Guy’s non-judgmental countenance, the resting of the audience’s collective chin upon his shoulder, and the ephemerality of our encounters with his patrons give the audience enough time to witness a character’s personhood—to hook into a fear of theirs, an inconvenience of their day, the suggestion that that inconvenience is somehow reflective of a larger pattern or arc in their life—and then say “thank you and farewell” as they disappear from the show as innocuously as the weed smoke that wafts out of their mouths.

Spencer Kornhaber, a culture writer for The Atlantic, masterfully dissects the allure and moral quandaries that High Maintenance presents in a 2018 article about the show. He cogently names the way the show’s narrative approach and structure are enrapturing. But he also acknowledges the way that High Maintenance presents this “seductive” version of NYC as this “mystical ecosystem” in which “most everyone turns out to be a fair and generous person.” Kornhaber raises a barrage of salient points. When I think of High Maintenance I think of the young, successful comedians like Cat Cohen, Larry Owens, Bowen Yang and Mitra Jouhari who have all either starred or written for the show. I think of the cool factor of their contributions. I think of every episode’s end credits scene which is usually outfitted with a jaunty instrumental and a person gerunding (dancing, singing, showering) in slow motion. I think of how deeply I revere the show’s assertions that people in New York City—which is a place so commonly branded with this rough-and-tumble, Fran Lebowitizian, cold, concrete jungle ideological iron—are too reaching for good. But as Kornhaber raises, it can be tricky to distinguish if this vision deliberately appeals to the sentiments that gentrifiers like to watch, one in which people hang out with their weed dealer, strangers connect, and the city doesn’t swallow anyone whole. Or if the show is not pandering at all and a New York which possesses moments of authentic interpersonal warmth is just narrowly showcased on TV.

A moment that I return to when I think of great television—and that embodies all of the glory and complications of High Maintenance—is in Season 2’s “Scromple.” The Guy and Jules (Kate Lyn Shiel) his lesbian ex-partner, (standing-in for Blichfeld and Sinclair who were formerly married) joke together in a hospital as the Guy awaits treatment for a bike injury. While high, Jules and The Guy exchange a number of inside jokes. This may seem small and inconsequential but the moment that transpires between them is so lived-in, tender and silly that even in this episode’s geographical stasis, there is substantial narrative progression. We come to understand more about The Guy and his personal history which is revelatory considering he is often playing witness to circumstances just like the viewers of the show. This is a moment in which two white people do drugs in a hospital and exchange Arnold Schwarzenegger impressions while eating chocolate. As Kornhaber aptly recognizes, there are social dynamics which allow this moment of levity to be carefree and devoid of panic for these characters. And knowing all this it is still astoundingly delightful to watch; to see two characters who know one another, and as an audience member be able to trace the outline of their history and to feel their intimacy and believe all of it.

High Maintenance was a show that was not unblemished by appropriate critiques of its motivations and the vision of New York City it propagates. But I will miss the show because it unabashedly celebrated people by simply encouraging us to notice them and all their ugly, lovely precarities. It encouraged us to notice ourselves in them. While I would have relished the opportunity to see how High Maintenance may have or may not have incorporated the global pandemic into the world of the show, what becomes of The Guy (or if we ever learn his true name), it somehow feels appropriate the way the show ended. In hindsight, not realizing that the last episode of Season 4 would be the last new episode of the show altogether makes the show paradoxically and splendidly feel like one of the characters it has typically showcased. Here it was for us to witness in all its own glory and complications. And how blessed were we to watch it. And oh look, there it went.

Adesola Thomas is a screenwriter and culture writer. She loves talking about Annette Benning’s performance in 20th Century Women and making lasagna.

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