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High Maintenance on HBO, a phantasmagoria of life in New York

"High Maintenance" is a web series that debuted on Vimeo in November 2012 and was picked up by HBO in 2016. The second season of "High Maintenance" premieres on HBO on January 19, 2018. New episodes will be released every Friday.


Since debuting as a web series five years ago, High Maintenance’s greatest strength has been its ability to open windows into the lives of interesting characters, evoking microcosms and subcultures with morsels of dialogue and aesthetic detail. High Maintenance has a lot in common with Girls in terms of setting and tone, but it has a more flexible narrative shape as an anthology of vignettes tracing a sprawling web of New Yorkers.

The cast of characters move in disparate social spheres that, in the vastness of New York City, seem unlikely to overlap, but what they have in common is their unnamed weed dealer who is referred to as “the Guy.” Until recently, the Guy hasn’t had much of his own storyline—his movements serve more as a narrative path that drops us off to different characters. As he delivers pot to one apartment, a neighbor will walk by and suddenly the episode will jump into the world of this neighbor who lives down the hall.

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Ben Sinclair as the Guy in HM (David Russell for HBO) Photo credit to David Russell/HBO.

The show’s creators Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair (who plays the Guy) have made an effort to include characters from a range of ages and racial/ethnic backgrounds (notable examples include a college student from a conservative Pakistani family who finds space for youthful indulgences, and an elderly Chinese couple who spend their days scavenging for recyclables), but its voice is most robust when articulating the lives of the millennial creative class in Brooklyn.

Some of the most memorable characters to leap off the screen are: Chad (played by Chris Roberti), the manic pixie dream boy (“Everyone has a Chad in their life. A Chad will lead you down roads to many adventures,” explained Blichfeld in one bonus clip); Patrick (Michael Cyril Creighton), the gentle agoraphobe who doesn’t actually smoke, he just buys weed for the opportunity to socialize for a few minutes; and Scott (Scott Treadwell), a handsome redhead living a monastic life dedicated to working out, adhering to the “Uberman” sleep routine, and following the teachings of an unorthodox spiritual leader. Then there is the dog.

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Gatsby the dog and Beth (Yael Stone), Photo credit to David Russell/HBO.

“Grandpa” is an episode from the first HBO season that is told from the perspective of a dog named Gatsby (played by Bowdie the gray poodle mutt) whose owner has just moved across country to New York. It’s a very charming and emotionally compelling episode, conveying the rush of falling in love and the subsequent way that life will never be the same. “Grandpa” also exemplifies High Maintenance’s excellent taste in music; the most expressive scenes are enriched with lush indie and psychedelic chillwave songs by Chris Bear (of Grizzly Bear), Tycho, Khruangbin, Devendra Banhart and others. You can listen to featured songs from the show on a Spotify playlist.

Villainous characters also tend to stand out, like the toxic and co-dependent best frenemies Max and Laney (Max Jenkins and Heléne Yorke) and the narcissistic Anja (Ismenia Mendes) who has no qualms about using other people’s personal stories without their consent and without consideration for their vulnerability. In “Derech,” one of season 2’s standout episodes, Anja returns as a new staff writer for Vice. Undoubtedly living out her gonzo reporter fantasies, she exploits a young man’s crush on her to delve into his social group of ex-Hasidic Jews, whom she describes as “the fringes of the fringes of society.”

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Heléne Yorke and Max Jenkins as Max and Laney, Photo credit to David Russell/HBO.

Though we often spend more time within the intimate vignettes from each character’s world, the Guy is key to understanding the ethos of the show. He is very much a flaneur, as one who spends his entire days biking around town, experiencing the shifting pantomime of the city at close range. He’ll spontaneously clock out to admire a colorful parade or to appreciate the music of an unusual busker. The Guy encounters a lot of unusual and often neurotic people and in general he benevolently greets them all with acceptance, and an utter lack of judgment of human eccentricity. Except in the occasional instance when a client is trying to cheat him, he consistently treats them with sensitivity and decency.

The new season is characterized by a tectonic shift in mood, most directly addressed in the premiere episode “Globo” which takes place the day after an unspecified catastrophic event. People around the city wake up to a slew of panicked texts and phone calls. The air is thick with grief and outrage. As one character puts it, the city has become “a phantasmagoria of despair.” Yet, there is also the sense of a community of people commiserating and comforting each other, which draws comparisons to mood of the city following 9/11. You could infer it’s the day that people woke up to the news that Donald Trump would be president, or perhaps it’s another hate crime or terrorist attack. The lack of explicitness places the emphasis on the communal human reaction as opposed to the source of dread.

After a very busy day of non-stop deliveries, the Guy stops into a bar for a drink. The camera floats around eavesdrops on mostly glum conversations, but we do get one man’s positive outlook on the incident: “It’s going to push creativity so far. Comedy’s going to be great for the next few years.” This spirit of being shaken out of our normal routines and being galvanized into action, combined with the way the episode ends on a warm note of communal energy, recontextualizes the mood to highlight the resilience of the city and the human instinct to reach out and connect with each other.

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Anja (Ismenia Mendes), Photo credit to David Russell/HBO.

Subsequent episodes carry through the consciousness of “the new paradigm” and explore the question of whether life really changes: In a city where many people spend more time composing Twitter or Instagram posts than talking to their next door neighbor, where shared Lyft rides exacerbate misanthropic feeling, where roommates who live in the same apartment don’t see each other for weeks, will this momentous and unexpected occurrence truly shift the way people treat each other?

The new season of High Maintenance engages with a more intensely politicized atmosphere while offering the same pleasures of imaginative and lyrical storytelling from its previous seasons. Half the cast are brand new faces and the rest are familiar characters who return and reveal a bit more of themselves. For those who are new to the show, the web series episodes still shine as little gems—some are less than ten minutes long (compared to nearly thirty minute HBO episodes), but, with a sure hand, they sketch the characters to be fleshed out. Wherever you start, this freewheeling show will introduce you to new people and lead you down roads to many adventures.