The Most Poignant Pot Comedy On The Internet
The fantastic web series High Maintenance is more than worth your time — it's even worth investing a few bucks.
The scruffily affable hero of High Maintenance, simply credited as the Guy, is a drug dealer.
More specifically, he delivers weed, sold by the eighth. He travels by bike, by subway, and by foot, and he sticks to Brooklyn unless there's a very good reason to make an exception. The service he provides is not unique to New York, but it's one that speaks to a particular quirk of the city, which is packed with a hundred museums, bars, galleries, restaurants, and unique sights, but which also seems intent on making it as easy as possible to just stay home in your (probably tiny) apartment and have everything brought to your doorstep.
It also means that the Guy (Ben Sinclair) spends most of his time dipping in and out of the lives and living situations of his varied customers. That's the basic conceit of High Maintenance, a web series created by Sinclair and his wife Katja Blichfeld, which has just debuted three of its first-ever pay episodes on Vimeo On Demand. It's the streaming site's first venture into original programming. The Guy stops by a different household each episode to drop off some pot and, sometimes, to hang out.
It sounds like a wacky stoner sketch comedy, but High Maintenance is much, much more than that. Though the desire to get baked is an essential part of each episode, it's often just tangential to a larger, sometimes funny, and sometimes achingly poignant snapshot of urban existence. It's a show that's filled with dead-on microdetails about the particular slice of New York life each installment zeroes in on (In "Geiger," the first of the new episodes, one of the Fort Greene buppies mutters, "I'm going to download the Wine Spectator app," after shooing away what he saw as a condescending offer of help from clerk at the store). But there's no in-jokiness or sense of eliteness to its specificity, which is all about quickly transforming its characters from types to quirky, unpredictable, all too believable people.
In the series' first episode, "Stevie," the Guy gets a call from the high-strung assistant of a demanding Hollywood bigwig who insisted she arrange for a rapid pot delivery, only to then decide she wasn't coming back to the hotel room after all. It's the weakest installment of the series, which settles into its unique rhythm very quickly, but it still sums up a sense of generous warmth in a mere five minutes, as the Guy convinces his stressed-out customer to indulge in her boss' stash. Later episodes take long minutes before the Guy shows up on the scene, and sometimes he and the drugs he provides are only a minor presence in what are really tiny, superb little portraits.
Here are the Bushwick neo-hippie chicks of "Jamie" trying to figure out what to do with the mouse caught in the glue trap they set out, and the agoraphobe of "Helen" living with his sick mother, and the couple of "Dinah" who are dealing with a rowdy visiting friend who's not nearly as close to settling down as they are. Most of the actors are talented local up-and-comers (Blichfeld won an Emmy for her work as a casting director on 30 Rock), but some famous faces start showing up as the series grows into itself and becomes more ambitious. Comedian Hannibal Buress plays himself in a standout installment in which he experiences a traumatic event while on tour and struggles to move on from it, and Downton Abbey alum Dan Stevens plays a stay-at-home dad dealing with writer's block and a predilection that's best left to be discovered by viewers.
There are 13 existing free-to-watch episodes of High Maintenance, plus the new ones, priced at $1.99 each or $7.99 for a season pass that covers all three as well as an additional trio that will be released in January. It's daring for something as soap-bubble-delicate as a web series, much less one based on something as flyaway as pot smoking, to attempt to charge for installments — and High Maintenance isn't the kind of cliffhanger-based storytelling that would seem most likely to push people to reach for their wallets. But the new installments are worth the investment, and not just out of the sense that supporting an indie project like this is a worthy thing.
Web series still aren't quite to television what indie movies are to Hollywood films — even the most ambitious, acclaimed, and talked about of them, like Issa Rae's Awkward Black Girl and Adam Goldman's The Outs, have only been able to achieve a niche sort of breakout status. They often speak to audiences who've traditionally been ignored or underserved by the slow-moving, overly tentative networks, in terms of race, gender, and sexuality, but there hasn't yet been one that would be mistaken for a series on a linear channel. They can feel more like pitches for what could be done, with more resources and structure — like Broad City, which vaulted from a promising but scattershot web series to a fabulous Comedy Central show with a boost from Amy Poehler.
But High Maintenance never feels like it has a bigger show inside it, bursting to get out. It's exactly the size and shape it should be, an anthology series that's gradually fleshing out a larger universe of folks who like to smoke. While the episodes have slowly expanded from the 6-7 minute range toward the 14-15 minute one over the show's two-year run, they still exist as self-contained doodles, albeit ones that sometimes intersect — a main character from one episode showing up in a smaller or larger role in a later one.
Evan (Avery Monsen), the focus of the second new episode "Genghis," is a customer who's turned up in earlier episodes, an amateur magician and proud asexual (he has literature on hand!) whose career takes a bold but melancholy turn. Ellen (Birgit Huppuch), one of the two main characters in "Ruth," previously appeared in "Brad Pitts," where we saw her dealing with a serious illness that leads one of her friends to contact the Guy in hopes getting high would help her fading appetite. "Ruth," a wistful but bawdy anecdote involving a blind date, is the episode you should buy if you're going to purchase just one — it's the loveliest romance imaginable to involve a mishap with someone's balls, and a perfect example of High Maintenance's unsentimental but deep compassion.
It's all thanks to the Guy, who isn't just the thread tying all of these other characters together — he's an embodiment of the series' point of view. Whether making a delivery or killing some time by the waterfront, he's always openly delighted by the millions of tiny dramas going on around him at any time. Every window the camera pans past is part of someone's home, which contains someone's ongoing story, and High Maintenance's suggests there's humor and pathos to be discovered in all of them. It's the Guy who takes a call from a customer and says, "It's going to be, like, 15 or..." and then takes another look at the busker he's been watching dance in a pink feather boa amid accompanying toys and concludes, "It's going to be, like, 45 minutes." Sometimes you've got to stop and smell the roses, or whatever else floats your boat.