‘High Maintenance’ Expands its Delivery Zone But Maintains its Potency

When something small and beautiful makes the leap to a bigger platform, anxiety is a natural response. But fans of High Maintenance need not worry. On Friday, the former web series about a Brooklyn weed dealer and his diverse clientele premieres its first episode on HBO, and I’m happy to report that creators/writers/directors Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair have managed to expand the boundaries of the show’s world without sacrificing the homespun charm of the web series.

High Maintenance pulls off the tricky feat of speaking to both longtime fans of the original version and newcomers to the HBO show. It centers on a pot dealer known only as “the Guy” (Sinclair) who delivers his wares via bicycle, but it’s less about the Guy himself than his clients and their different reasons for picking up the phone and requesting his services. In its original iteration, which launched in 2012, episodes rarely ran longer than 15 or 20 minutes; on HBO, episodes run the standard half-hour, although there may be two or even three stories told in one episode. (The old web episodes have been taken off Vimeo, but they’re now available on HBO’s on-demand platforms.)

The web series was lauded for its depiction of a wide swath of stoners, not the stereotypical Cheeto-crunching couch potatoes that you usually see on TV. The HBO version also features a varied assortment of characters — some new, some familiar to fans of the web series. Because the Guy’s business is based on referrals, his clients are all connected in some way; on the HBO series, Sinclair and Blichfeld make these connections much more explicit.

Fortunately, the move to the cable giant hasn’t dulled High Maintenance’s curiosity for the sundry inhabitants of New York City. In one episode, the Guy passes an old man collecting bottles outside a client’s apartment, and the camera leaves our hero behind and follows the man as he travels through the city with his giant plastic bags full of recycling — a familiar site for New Yorkers, but a character that a TV show set in New York rarely, if ever, bothers to notice.

In a standout episode, a Muslim college student who lives with her conservative parents sneaks up to the roof of her building to smoke and study; another is filmed from the perspective of a dog whose owner has recently moved from a house with a big yard to a small apartment in the city (the dog walker is a client of the Guy’s).

Unfortunately, the one off-key note (at least in the first five episodes that HBO made available to critics) is also the very first story of the premiere episode, which centers on a tattooed, muscled meathead whose girlfriend is in the process of dumping him when the Guy shows up at his apartment. The character comes off like a cartoon, and the storyline does a better job highlighting the Guy’s uncomfortable reaction to the situation than the client himself — a rare misstep for the series.

Fortunately, that same episode sees the return of Max and Lainey, a.k.a. “the assholes,” (Max Jenkins and Heléne York) two popular characters from one of the web series’ best episodes, “Olivia.” Max and Lainey are insufferable social climbers whose selfish cynicism was played for laughs in the original episode. In the far darker HBO episode, their bond is threatened when Max starts spending time with a new crowd and his frustration with his best friend-slash-worst influence bubbles over from deadpan weariness into explosive rage.

Helene York and Max Jenkins
Helene York and Max Jenkins

I don’t know whether Blichfeld and Sinclair had planned to bring back these characters regardless of the HBO deal, or others who appear in both iterations, like “Homeless Heidi,” played by the very funny Greta Lee, and a reclusive Helen Hunt obsessive played by Michael Cyril Creighton. But it appears the creators wanted to not only explore the lives of these characters in more detail, but also to serve a slice of the HBO pie to the actors who helped give the web series its name. The premiere episode in particular is a showcase for the fantastic Max Jenkins, whose eye-rolling nonchalance just barely masks his character’s frustration and self-loathing.

That pay-it-forward spirit is appropriate for a series that’s not just about a web of interrelated stoners. At its core, High Maintenance is about loneliness. TV is a great antidote to that urban blight; lucky for us the show has expanded the borders of its delivery zone so more viewers can get in on the good stuff.

 

High Maintenance premieres on HBO on Fri. Sept. 16; all existing episodes from the Vimeo days are now available on HBO Go.