What the weed-based web series High Maintenance has to do with Martin Scorsese, Louis C.K., and the end of television
Ben Sinclair and Yael Stone in a new episode of High Maintenance. Photo by Gus Powell
If you’re one of the few remaining holdouts keeping your internet and TV in separate boxes, there’s really no way to appropriately explain High Maintenance. The problem is that High Maintenance—chronicling the workdays of a New York City weed delivery guy (Ben Sinclair)—is technically what you’d call a “web series,” an ugly phrase that for some still connotes even uglier words like “vlog” and “15-year-old YouTube sensation.” But far from an unformed idea waiting to blossom into a high-quality cable show, High Maintenance makes the case that the internet is ready for primetime. Now in its second season and produced by the video-streaming site Vimeo (a first for the company), High Maintenance has no co-sign from a true TV channel despite being qualitatively on the level, if not above, most of the content still tethered to such networks. The fact that it circumvented all the traditional gatekeepers in its conception works purely to its advantage.
Banish all thoughts of web-cam-shot sketches, memes or viral videos. High Maintenance—created by Sinclair and his wife Katja Blichfeld—is better compared to high caliber, innovative sitcoms like Starz’s much-missed Party Down or FX’s cult comedy Louie. That’s not to accuse High Maintenance, which debuted in 2012 and will premiere new episodes via Vimeo On Demand beginning Tuesday, of being a web-based facsimile of TV’s cutting edge. Though Blichfeld and Sinclair clearly join Louis C.K. among the growing ranks of Martin Scorsese-indebted comedic auteurs, High Maintenance also draws from Robert Altman and more recently, the brothers Coen and Duplass.
Ben Sinclair in High Maintenance.
Where Louie’s view of the world is skewed by its protagonist’s schlub-shaped lens, Sinclair’s drug dealer is a nameless, often-wordless observer who acts more like a McGuffin-delivering plot device than a main character. “Stevie” and “Matilda,” High Maintenance’s first and most recent episodes respectively, give Sinclair’s charismatic weed guy significant screen time, but in most episodes he’s off-screen and blissfully oblivious as the episode’s actual storyline unfolds among his waiting customers. The viewer becomes a true voyeur without an onscreen avatar, picking out the plot from threads of dangling, digressive conversations dropped by the various cross-dressers, cancer patients, homeless people, hipster a-holes, and Bon Iver-blasting lesbian vegans gentrifying, putrefying, or just surviving in the Big Apple. Oftentimes the most important action happens off-screen—an abrupt edit requires viewers to fill in a sizable ellipsis with their own knowledge of human behavior, a feat hard to imagine any traditional television network entrusting so fully to its audience.
Sometimes, as in the gloriously NSFW Passover episode “Elijah,” the payoff is a punchline. More often episodes are capped with a delightful, last-second clarity, a quickly captured but well-developed snapshot of one face in a crowd of 8 million. And like Louie, the socially awkward loners populating High Maintenance’s NYC (with a few unforgettable and unnerving exceptions) share a fundamental difference from Robert De Niro’s Scorsese-directed misfits. Unlike Travis Bickle or Rupert Pupkin, most of the people blowing up this drug dealer’s phone are capable of comprehending modern society and even contributing to it.
In 2014, technology provides the illusion of constant human connection, simplifying and sanitizing most interactions of their messy, smelly, mostly inconvenient humanness. Marijuana’s continued illegality in New York (notwithstanding the new allowance for medical uses) makes it one of the few things High Maintenance’s characters must step outside their comfort zones to obtain. The brief moments of intrusion these characters are forced to accommodate for a little baggie of relief are thrilling to watch because they are increasingly vanishing from actual life.
Though the characters have trouble relating to one another, High Maintenance’s large company of talented actors conveys the roles to the viewer in HD clarity. Parts somehow feel lived in even when the characters clock less than a minute of total screen time (episode lengths range from five to 15 minutes). Blichfeld, who won an Emmy as a casting director for 30 Rock, does equally award-winning work here.
Ironically, young stoners looking for easy gags that were old when Cheech & Chong got a hold of them may well be the demographic mostly likely to consider High Maintenance a confounding buzzkill. Though the skeevy stoner is well represented among the exponentially growing and loosely interconnected customer base in High Maintenance’s world, these weed buyers are significantly more varied than we’re used to seeing onscreen. Caring parents, senior citizens, and other functioning adults seem to be the kind of customers Sinclair’s pot purveyor prefers, and these kinds of everyday people are also the audience High Maintenance wants to attract. It seems a web series, like medicinal-grade ganja, can have any number of uses beyond making heavy-lidded high schoolers giggle. That we’re just now discovering what many of those uses are makes the high that much more intense.