Maybe it hits you while you’re waiting for a train on an elevated platform, counting the windows on a hulking apartment building across the tracks: Someone lives in each of those tiny rooms, someone with their own pet gerbil, their own flourishing love life, their own late rent check and fridge full of beer. For me, there is the man who waits on a doorstep across the street from my apartment every so often, wearing an immaculate three-piece suit and holding a leashed Great Dane. Who is he? What is he waiting for? There are 8 million stories in New York City, as the narrator of ’50s crime drama Naked City used to remind viewers.
Nowadays, that’s closer to 8.5 million. But the sentiment, both colossal and utterly banal, still rings true in the new HBO series High Maintenance. In its way, you could even call High Maintenance a crime drama, just like Naked City, because its network of disparate characters is held together by a shared transgression: pretty much all of them enjoy smoking weed. (A drug that’s still illegal in New York, though that’s sometimes easy to forget if you’re a white Brooklynite.) The show centers on a bearded and beatific pot dealer known only as “The Guy,” who roams the city by bicycle, dispensing his easy wisdom to clients alongside his high-grade cannabis. But rather than structuring episodes around The Guy’s entrepreneurial travails, High Maintenance focuses instead on his clients, devoting an episode or so to each pothead or first-time smoker before moving on to another. These are regular New Yorkers with lives as rich and textured as anyone else on television, and the neuroses to match, despite their limited screen time.
On Friday, High Maintenance made its HBO debut following six seasons as a web-only series–first as a fully DIY effort by Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair, the wife-and-husband duo that created the show, then with a distribution deal from Vimeo. After a brief scene introducing new viewers to The Guy, we meet his first customer: an erratic Vin Diesel lookalike who seems every bit the stereotypically insecure meathead until a plot twist that doesn’t quite land reveals him as another kind of man entirely. The quirks and charms of the first episode as a full-fledged cable show were immediately recognizable to the small cult of High Maintenance fans, though it didn’t dazzle as much as the web series.
But the HBO show hits its stride with “Museebat,” the second episode, an alternately poignant and farcical tale in two acts. “Museebat”‘s first half focuses on Eesha, a college student who commutes to the swinging city from her uncle and aunt’s house in the outer boroughs. Their family presents New York’s liveliness and diversity in cozy microcosm: Eesha smokes cigarettes and snickers over a dick pic that her friend received from an overeager suitor, then slides on her hijab and picks up her little cousin from masjid. “Now you don’t like my tacos?” her aunt asks incredulously after Eesha gets home, spooning out Mexican food for Sunday dinner.
The second act brings us to a swingers party whose bickering hosts seem to believe that some casual sex might distract them from their failing relationship. (It also features an appearance from Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens, whose cross-dressing writer character was the subject of a fan-favorite web episode, one of many Easter eggs for longtime followers.) High Maintenance never loses empathy for its characters, but it isn’t above loopy satire, as evinced by a party scene that culminates with the male host interrupting a solitary belly dancer’s routine to deliver the sobering news that he’s recently been diagnosed with chlamydia.
The two halves of “Museebat” turn out to be connected more intimately than we initially realize, and the genuinely surprising revelation of the swingers’ proximity to Eesha and her family is High Maintenance at its best. By its end, the episode has braided two distinct and equally believable human stories with subtle observations about gentrification, yuppie cultural appropriation, and the stifling feeling of exploring young adulthood while living under the same roof as an adult who thinks they’ve got it all figured out already.
For a show about weed, High Maintenance rarely makes getting high a central concern. One later episode is devoted to scavengers for street-side recyclables, for instance, and another to dizzying meta critique of trendy Brooklyn-based shows including High Maintenance itself. (“Do you feel like maybe that’s because you’re white?” an interlocutor demands of The Guy at one point after he admits that he’s never been arrested for selling.) Instead of fodder for hackneyed stoner jokes, The Guy and his product serve as catalysts that get the action moving along, or as receptacles for the messy emotions that are stirred up when the action inevitably goes wrong for The Guy’s clients.
Sinclair, who stars as The Guy in addition to co-writing and -directing High Maintenance with Blichfeld, has a weary comportment and sunken eyes that once served him well in a role as an anonymous creep on Law & Order: SVU. On High Maintenance, he uses his preternaturally louche features to opposite and charming effect, slowly unfolding smiles and conspiratorial looks of surprise. “He’s an idealized version of what we would like to be,” Sinclair told me in an interview last year. “A person who’s non-judgmental and lets shit roll off his back, but will still stand up for himself if he’s in a position that’s not good for him.”
He’s also a pretty good stand-in for the viewer. Either on television or out in the street, we are confronted with a menagerie of unknowable people every day. On bad days, they frustrate us with their strange biases and stranger clothing. On good days, the incredible breadth and volume of humanity in New York City and everywhere else might bring us something like peace. We see someone, we try to understand them, we offer as much empathy as our limited reserves will allow. But we are always on our way to somewhere else–so are they, of course–and after a minute or an hour, we always eventually move on.