High Maintenance 

HBO's stoner anthology series takes a grassroots approach to good television

click to enlarge Ben Sinclair as The Guy
  • Ben Sinclair as The Guy
The definition of an anthology series is one that lacks recurring characters or continuing storylines. They used to be more common in the early days of television, and the form reached its apex in 1959 with The Twilight Zone, which connected its disparate scripts with merely a mood of eerie surreality. The current most prominent anthology show in the Zone template is Black Mirror — although The Twilight Zone will be getting a reboot courtesy of Jordan Peele this spring, so expect to see that name again in my column.

High Maintenance comes at the anthology series idea from a completely different angle. Instead of Serling-esque, story-driven thought experiments, every week the HBO episodic series focuses on a new character study of someone plucked from the psychic maelstrom of New York City. Like Girls, HBO’s zietgiest-y show that everyone seems to have taken turns loving and hating, High Maintenance has its origins in the DIY digital indie movement of the Aughts. It was begun in 2012 as a webseries on Vimeo by co-creators Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair, who plays The Guy, an anonymous weed dealer living in Brooklyn. Every week, The Guy delivers his wares to a new eccentric, whose life and struggles we get to glimpse for the next 15 minutes or so.

Two episodes into its third season sees the cannabis-infused series maturing, but not necessarily growing up. Until the most recent series premiere, The Guy was not so much a character as he was a framing device. His street-level view of the various potheads, sad sacks, and weirdos he meets on his appointed rounds defines the show’s nonjudgmental tone of social realism, but we don’t know much about him as a person. In “M.A.S.H.,” The Guy opens up a bit when he leaves the city to attend the funeral of a friend named Berg. The old stoner’s funeral service, populated with unreconstructed hippies who break out into a memorial jam session of questionable quality, is a quick and easy demonstration of the show’s attitude towards its characters. This is a celebration of eccentricity that approaches its creations with love, even if they can’t play banjo as well as they think they can when they’re stoned.
Moments before a stoned jam session breaks out on the season 3 premiere of High Maintenance
  • Moments before a stoned jam session breaks out on the season 3 premiere of High Maintenance
The second episode, “Craig,” sees the show back in the familiar physical and psychological territory of Brooklyn. In the first segment, one of Guy’s regulars named Marty (Gary Richardson) gets his bike stolen. When The Guy suggests he look for it for sale on Craigslist, Marty falls down a rabbit hole of unwanted merchandise and bartering with the strangers from the internet. He never does find that bike, but at least his apartment is much better decorated than before.
click to enlarge Catherine Cohen (left) as the mad flasher Darby
  • Catherine Cohen (left) as the mad flasher Darby
The second segment of “Craig” soars with a killer performance by Catherine Cohen as Darby, a mild-mannered Manhattan office worker by day who fills up her evenings by selling purloined goods on Craigslist and flashing her boobs at unsuspecting civilians. Darby the Mad Flasher meets her match when she targets a self-described sociopath in the Personals section of Craigslist. Sinclair, who directed the episode, teases out her comeuppance with a delicious slow-build, then tacks on a hilarious coda involving a taxi driver who looks like Barack Obama.
click to enlarge The taxi driver who looks like Barack Obama.
  • The taxi driver who looks like Barack Obama.
The most enduring legacy of digital DIY cinema has been a naturalistic acting style, but in High Maintenance, with its skillful digital camera work, minimal lighting, and slice of life storylines descended directly from Slacker, we finally see the real deal transformed into prestige television. American indie cinema is still stoned, but it’s moved out of mom's basement, bought an RV, and landed a job with HBO.

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