TV

Exploring Our New Lows, “High Maintenance” Reaches New Heights

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“Well, damn,” Ben Sinclair said on Wednesday night, at a preview screening of the new season of High Maintenance at Brooklyn’s Alamo Drafthouse. “We’re all just so fractured, aren’t we?”

Sinclair and his co-creator, Katja Blichfeld, were introducing the first episode of season two, which premieres tonight on HBO. The formerly married couple (they split up last year but remain creative partners) launched High Maintenance, about a Brooklyn pot dealer’s sundry clientele, in 2012; in its embryonic stage, it was a Vimeo web series, with most episodes just eight or nine minutes long. HBO scooped it up in 2015, and its first season as an all-grown-up cable comedy aired last year. Tonight, the channel premieres the first of ten new episodes.

The show’s creators conceived of the season opener on the day of Trump’s inauguration — a year ago almost to the day. In it, our sativa-slinging hero (Sinclair), known only as “the Guy,” wakes up next to a woman whose identity I won’t spoil. After some cute morning banter, complete with complaints about the Guy’s “night farts” (“Your asshole was just coughing up a lung”), she checks her phone. “Oh, shit,” she says. “Something bad happened.” The Guy picks up his phone. “Fuck. No.”

Blichfeld and Sinclair — who wrote and directed the episode — knew from the start that they wanted to keep the “bad” thing intentionally vague. As Blichfeld explained during a Q&A session after the screening, they were more interested in “capturing a mood” than defining this thing that’s causing various Brooklynites to hyperventilate into their phones and say things like, “This is gonna be great for comedy.” Throughout the new season, the word “Trump” is not uttered once. Yet the impact of his election is a focal point of the two episodes that were screened on Wednesday night, and in particular tonight’s premiere.

In the past year, a lot of TV comedies have taken on the elephant in the room, some more explicitly than others. The first episode of NBC’s Will & Grace reboot had Grace decorating the Oval Office despite her revulsion for its new occupant; on season four of Broad City, which bleeped out every mention of Trump’s name, Ilana realizes she hasn’t had an orgasm since the election. High Maintenance’s approach, though, feels most appropriate — and most fitting to the show. Like the Guy himself, the unnamed disaster that ripples through the city connects disparate dwellers, whose reactions to the news tidily inform their characters in the short time we spend with them.

Titled “Globo,” tonight’s premiere is a microcosm of the show. The camera follows several characters, relay-style (think Slackers), taking the viewer into different worlds all within blocks of each other. We sit it on a spin class where only one determined cycler has shown up, and eavesdrop on diners — and the staff who wait on them — eating lunch at a chic bistro. We spend some time in a room at Williamsburg’s McCarren Hotel, where new friends met the night before and have yet to charge their phones. Bar patrons alternately sob and trade conspiracy theories. The whole episode is infused with the doomsday cloud that enveloped the city in the days and weeks following the 2016 election. If you were here then, you’ll feel a tingle of recognition, a chill of residual dread.

Since it started gaining followers—and media attention—around 2014, much of the conversation surrounding High Maintenance has centered on its weed-delivery-guy device; it’s a great hook, and the web series arrived at just the right time to capitalize on America’s growing acceptance of casual pot consumption. But, as critics have pointed out, the Guy is merely “connective tissue,” a unique figure who crosses paths with a wide variety of New Yorkers, from Bushwick artists to coked-out party pals to crossdressing stay-at-home dads. The show is about how and why people smoke pot, sure, but it’s also about training a camera on hidden corners of the city and the people who inhabit them — like an agoraphobic, closeted Helen Hunt obsessive who lives with his ailing mother in a rent-controlled apartment, or a lonely doorman who hangs out at karaoke bars, or a woman suffering from cancer who likes bird watching.

High Maintenance is a generous show; it oozes empathy, but it’s never gooey. Living in New York City, it’s easy to wallow in self-pity and succumb to misanthropy. But watching this show helps put things in perspective. What feels like a cataclysm to one person might feel like mere background noise to another. If you open yourself up to it, a metropolis of over eight million people can challenge your assumptions. Tonight’s premiere illustrates how in a city this dense and neurotic, emotions can spread like wildfire, turning even the most public spaces into sites of communion.  If everyone else on the subway is openly weeping, welp, you might as well join the club.

 

High Maintenance season two premieres tonight at 11 p.m. on HBO.

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