How to Spend Your 4/20: Watch All of High Maintenance

Reviews of the latest films.
April 18 2014 7:12 PM

High Maintenance

This is how you should spend your 4/20.

Ben Sinclair in High Maintenance.
Ben Sinclair delivers pot and earns trust in the Web series High Maintenance.

Still via Janky Clown Productions/Vimeo

The Web series High Maintenance, about which I’d been hearing good things at a low rumble for the past couple of months, had a few hurdles to clear before it could reach whatever stratum of my media awareness separates “oh, I should catch up with that” from “must watch right now.” First of all, there was the matter of the show ostensibly being a weed comedy, which, given the premise—a bicycling pot-delivery guy interacts with clients of various stripes on his rounds through New York City—it seemed like it had to be. Though there are always exceptions to the rule—Gregg Araki’s feminist stoner odyssey Smiley Face being a recent and shining example—marijuana-based humor tends to proceed along a fairly predictable track: gags about paranoia and couch-lock, peril-fraught quests for fast food, and general jokes at the expense of the temporarily cognition-impaired. (Harold: “We’re so high right now.” Kumar: “We’re not low.”)

Dana Stevens Dana Stevens

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

Then there was the fact of the series being set, for the most part, in the milieu of creative twentysomethings in Brooklyn, hardly terra incognita on the current entertainment landscape. High Maintenance was created by a married couple who inhabit just that milieu—Katja Blichfeld, a casting director whose credits include an Emmy award for her work on 30 Rock, and Ben Sinclair, an actor and editor who also plays the role of the unnamed weed-delivering protagonist—and most of its cast is drawn from the world of New York–based theater, improv, and sketch comedy. But please don’t write off High Maintenance because you think you’ve already experienced the equivalent in the guise of Girls or Broad City or one of the other fine comic chronicles of life in the not-so-mean streets of gentrified Gotham. This series is its own idiosyncratic, unexpected, and wonderful thing—and one of the best works of art I’ve experienced in any medium so far this year.

Part of what makes High Maintenance so hard to stop watching once you’ve started—there are 13 episodes to date on the show’s Vimeo page, ranging in length from about five minutes to about 15—is the show’s canny exploration of the possibilities afforded by the online medium. As a Web series, it doesn’t have to hew to the conventional strictures of duration or pacing of a TV sitcom: the half-hour length, the A and B storylines, the focus on a recurring protagonist. Each episode is precisely as long as it needs to be, telling a single, freestanding story that often ends abruptly on an O. Henry–style reversal. Though Sinclair’s character, referred to by his clients as “my guy,” appears at least once in every installment, it wouldn’t be right to call him the main character; sometimes, his path crosses only briefly with whoever the episode is focused on. And though the principal characters from one story will occasionally pop up as bit players in another, the episodes can be watched in any order—insofar as these 13 stories reinforce and enrich one another, the relationship among them is cyclical, not linear.

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But for all its brevity and looseness of structure, High Maintenance is the opposite of a series of insubstantial, jokey vignettes. Rather, it’s a marvel of narrative compression, with an impressive amount of storytelling and characterization getting done in a matter of minutes. In the most recently released episode, “Rachel,” Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey (the most recognizable star to appear on the series so far) plays Colin, a stay-at-home father and secret cross-dresser who’s blocked on writing his second novel and hitting the pipe of inspiration maybe a bit too hard.* One day while his son is at school and his wife (played by the show’s co-creator Blichfeld) at work, Colin summons the courage to wear a dress to greet the ever-nonjudgmental weed guy, and the resulting encounter is so revelatory—and so liberally smoke-infused—that Colin misses a message to pick up his child at school. This episode ends on a surprising grace note that neatly undercuts any potential for tragic-drag-queen stereotyping, and also hangs fire as regards the moral valence of Colin’s drug use. On the one hand, he probably shouldn’t be at home getting baked during the school day. On the other hand, it was pot, and the social interaction required for its procurement, that led to a breakthrough that could be important for both Colin and his family.

In the episode “Brad Pitts” (named for one character’s cheerful mispronunciation of the actor’s name), a lonely middle-aged woman (Birgit Huppuch) has lost all interest in food as the result of an unnamed illness that seems to be cancer. A friend from her bird-watching club (Jennifer Smith) invites her over for dinner and—as an appetite-enhancing treat—a toke of weed, which neither of them has ever smoked (though the friend fondly remembers a contact high from a long-ago Steely Dan concert). The results—some of which can be seen in the clip below—are both funny and unexpectedly moving, as the effects of the drug cause the women to reverse roles: Suddenly the purported caretaker is the one who requires care as she embarks on a paranoid freak-out, while the cancer patient rediscovers not only her appetite but, just as importantly, a reason to laugh her ass off.

Not every episode of High Maintenance ends on an upbeat note. In “Jonathan,” the comedian Hannibal Buress plays a standup comic who’s thrown off his game when a club he’s playing becomes the scene of a random shooting. By episode’s end, it’s not clear that Buress’ taciturn, reclusive character is any closer to dealing with the trauma of the incident, or that his time spent moodily playing video games and smoking on the couch with the sympathetic but puzzled weed guy has done much to alleviate his anxiety. “Jonathan,” perhaps the grimmest episode of the series yet and the first to feature a nonwhite protagonist, points in promising directions that future episodes of High Maintenance (of which, please, let there be a fresh batch soon!) might take. I implore skeptical non-partakers to let go of your Cheech-and-Chong-era prejudices about the limits of weed comedy and spend a couple of hours this weekend in a state of couch lock, bingeing on the entire run of High Maintenance. What better way to spend your 4/20?

* * *

I spoke with Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair this week via email—they were at the Tribeca Film Festival promoting High Maintenance, which has been included in the festival’s new-this-year Tribeca N.O.W. program, a round-up of work produced for the Web.

I’m interested in how High Maintenance treats continuity and “world-building” relative to other serialized shows, both on the Web and on TV. As the show expanded, did you find yourself thinking about how each episode would fit into a larger whole? Did you have any models you were departing from in that regard?

If we’re being honest, the anthological style of the show was really born out of perceived necessity. Since we’re operating on a teeny tiny budget and not paying anyone, we didn’t feel like we could ask actors to give us days and days of their time. Changing the cast with each episode seemed like the best way to deal with that limitation. As we went on and got a few more episodes under our belt, we personally became attached to some of the characters (and of course the actors playing them). Basically we just wanted an excuse to bring some of these people back! Lucky for us, they have wanted to. And bonus—it ends up being sort of a reward for the loyal viewer.

I know you’ve had conversations with networks in the past year about developing the show for television—at this point, are you envisioning going down that road if the right situation presents itself, or keeping it on the Web? When you think about shifting from the shorter, more flexible Web format to the constraints of, say, a half-hour televised comedy, do you worry about the show losing some of what makes it special?

We’re really enjoying the freedom that being online gives us to say whatever the fuck we want. (See?) That being said, we don’t feel like we’ve taken full advantage of the absence of the FCC—so that’s something that’s still exciting to us and giving us a reason to consider staying online. Really, the flexibility it gives us is tremendous. As you point out, an episode is exactly as long as it needs to be. We’re really conscious of trying to leave the viewer wanting more. If we move to television, we suddenly have to fit our stories into a tidy 22 or 30 minutes. We don’t think the stories would suffer necessarily—we’d still aim to keep the pacing the same as it is in Web series format and pack in as much detail as possible. But sure, it would inevitably feel less special because we’d have to conform to those long-established TV conventions and likely lose a lot of the specificity that has come to define our stories. The biggest draw to television for us is, quite frankly, the paycheck.

Katja, because you’re a casting director and have said that that gave you an advantage in finding actors to draw on for High Maintenance, I wanted to ask about casting the show (which has so many memorable performers, nearly all of whom seem vaguely familiar from other roles, and all of whom seem like they could carry a show of their own!). Did you write most of the parts with specific people in mind to play them? Did you audition the actors? And since so many of them come from improv and sketch comedy backgrounds, did you often find yourself changing and reworking the scripts based on their contributions?

We’ve written quite a number of the roles on the show with specific performers in mind. But even when we haven’t known who we were writing for, we still haven’t needed to audition anyone. Between the two of us and Russell (our third executive producer) we’ve always had someone right within reach whose “voice” we already knew, and could confidently bring them on without an audition. We’re the sort of people who welcome an actor shaping the script by virtue of their inherent abilities.

Usually we’re pretty tightly scripted, but when we’re working with people who are talented improvisers, we definitely tell them to feel free to play around and try things, as long as they’re on the same page as us, so to speak. We know when we’ve got gold on our hands. Also, we give our actors permission to make the words sound like their own. There were words in the “Rachel” script that were not part of Dan Stevens’ vocabulary as a Brit, so of course we were very encouraging of him personalizing the language.

This show’s neutrality about the moral meaning of pot-smoking is one of its charms. In some episodes, a character’s use of marijuana is depicted as being a possible hindrance to their productivity and well-being; in others, smoking becomes a welcome release that allows them to open up the world in ways they might not have otherwise. Of course, this is the way most people’s relationship to this substance works in the real world as well. Can you say something about what drew you to this subject matter and why you think the visit from the weed guy provides such a good dramatic scaffolding to hang a variety of different stories on?

When we started this, we definitely wanted to portray marijuana usage as something completely mundane. It’s a part of our lives and pretty much most of the people we know. So that was definitely a conscious effort on our part.

We’ve said this so many times, but dammit, it’s true—we’re really fascinated by this notion of how some people regard their drug dealer with more trust than their own friends and neighbors. It’s humbling and can make one feel so vulnerable to let someone into one’s space, particularly in New York. People let their dealer see them (and their apartment) in a state that they might never reveal to even their closest friends. There’s also this interesting dynamic that’s set up when two people are complicit in something secretive like a drug deal. We love exploring the various ways that manifests itself.

Correction, April 21, 2014: This article originally misspelled the name of the television show Downton Abbey. (Return.)

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

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