New York City’s spider web of skyscrapers, streets, and apartments covers over 300 square miles and houses approximately 8.4 million people. Behind every window and every door lives a unique individual with a complicated life and a compelling story. These lives often seem isolated and disconnected, that is, until you can find a string to connect them. HBO’s new show, High Maintenance, uses a drug dealer as the string that ties the lives of the people behind the doors together and tries to tell their stories.
Today’s entertainment climate seems fixated on weed. Between Seth Rogen and his entourage making guaranteed box office successes and marijuana prominently featured across countless shows, the drug seems more prevalent in American pop culture than ever before. High Maintenance, a show with a drug reference in the title, takes a step back, and uses weed as a narrative device. The show centers on a drug dealer (Ben Sinclair) as he rides his bike through the streets of New York City, briefly interacting with other characters. Instead of just following the seller, however, the show decides to focus on the buyers. High Maintenance is formatted so every episode is about a different client, and the dealer simply comes in and out of the story, acting primarily as the string that gives it continuity.
The pilot episode contains two vignettes. In the first, much shorter story, the dealer is about to enter an apartment when he hears fighting. Inside, we see a Vin Diesel-type man fighting with his girlfriend until she storms out. When the dealer comes in, the Fast and Furious look-alike forces him to smoke, gives him fitness tips, plays with a katana, and tries to pay with coins. When the dealer becomes fed up and a little paranoid about the exchange, he eventually leaves with the coins, setting up one of the funniest reveals of the episode. In the second and more dramatic vignette we are introduced to two roommates, the young adults Max and Lainey. Again, not spoiling too much, the scene focuses on the toxic relationship of these two and comments on different types of addictions—people can be addicted to drugs, but they can also get sucked into addictive relationships that trap them in cycles where they are unable to help themselves.
The production of the show has a fascinating past. The married team of Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld started the show as a web series in 2012, creating 19 episodes ranging from five to 12 minutes in length. Individual episodes reportedly cost under $1,000 to produce, and the show quickly gained a cult following. In 2014, Vimeo picked the show up for official online distribution. In 2016, HBO signed a deal to graduate it to a full-length TV show. While the new show is still enjoyable as a standalone vehicle, there is continuity from the web show to the HBO show. For example, the characters of Max and Lainey are both from the web series and got called up to the big leagues.
This show is not for the easily offended. High Maintenance makes full use of being on HBO and the leeway provided by being on the premium channel. The show contains vulgar language, a constant depiction of drug abuse, and full nudity. But these provocative scenes are not just for shock value. Rather, they help develop a feeling of authenticity.
Overall, the show does a great job of capturing the atmosphere of New York. The show’s creators produce this genuine setting by doing the small things right. Whether it be the montages of the dealer riding his bike through the streets, the lights of the city blurring by, or the quick scenes of him getting his hair cut or trying to park his bike, these little details add real texture and spacial awareness to the show.
The pilot revealed an ambitious, yet far-from-perfect show. The episode struggled with pacing and lagged at times, before accelerating too rapidly at other points. While the show was billed as a comedy, the jokes didn’t land as often or as well as they should have, making the show feel heavy and serious. At its worst, High Maintenance is a dull hipster comedy that’s not as funny as it should be. But, when it’s at its best, it’s a gripping character study that transports you into the emotional worlds of its characters.