How 'High Maintenance' Got Me Hooked

'High Maintenance' is a compassionate, engaging and deeply funny collection of interconnected vignettes, held together by a pedaling peddler of top-quality marijuana

Simon Spungin
Simon Spungin
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Ben Sinclair in 'High Maintenance.'
Ben Sinclair in 'High Maintenance.'Credit: David M. Russell / HBO
Simon Spungin
Simon Spungin

I have been waiting for an excuse to review "High Maintenance" ever since it was plucked from the relative obscurity of video-sharing website Vimeo by HBO and turned into one of the most original and engaging shows on television.

Created by and starring Ben Sinclair, "High Maintenance" is ostensibly about an unnamed dope dealer – known only as "The Guy" – who peddles and pedals his way across New York, delivering top-quality marijuana to an eclectic group of customers.

And while Sinclair could be called the star of the show – which he created with his then-wife, Katja Blichfeld – it is that collection of random New Yorkers, each with their own lives and loves, and connected only by the fact that they sometimes share the same weed dealer, which makes "High Maintenance" such a hit. "The guy" is the main character in "High Maintenance" only insofar as he is the thread running between the characters, connecting them in ways they often never know or appreciate.

The twisting plot of each episode – in the web-only version, episodes varied in length between five and 12 minutes; the HBO episodes have been expanded to fit the standard half-hour timeslot – takes viewers on something of a stoned journey. As befits the subject matter, of course.

Characters float in an out of the "High Maintenance" universe just as they do in real life; our interactions with them are random and fleeting, but the compassion and humor of the writing make the poignant and touching.

The most recent episode to air - "Derech" – contains all of the elements that make "High Maintenance" special – and, with a topical Jewish theme to boot, provided the excuse for this review.

The episode opens in the apartment of Baruch, a Yiddish-speaking young man on the fringes of ultra-Orthodox society – played by none other than Luzer Twersky, best known from his appearances on "Transparent" and the 2017 Netflix documentary "One of Us."

A photo from the production of 'High Maintenance' in Brooklyn, N.Y., June 1, 2017. Credit: David M. Russell/HBO

Baruch – unemployed but searching Craigslist for "kosher jobs" – is excited about his upcoming date with Anja, a non-Jewish reporter for "Vice," whom he believes is interested in him. Veteran viewers of "High Maintenance" already know Anja, however: she was the reporter who tried to out "the guy" as a dope dealer in one of the web episodes. So, it comes as no surprise when – while buying some weed before joining Baruch and a group of former members of the ultra-Orthodox community for Friday night dinner – she confesses that she's only interested in Baruch for a story she's writing.

While Anja is busy annoying the other guests at Baruch's dinner with her obnoxiously accurate social insights – Sinclair excels at writing excruciatingly virtuous characters – "the guy" is off on an adventure of his own: some drunk person accidentally chained their bikes together while he was making a delivery, leaving him bereft of transportation. So, he calls an Uber – which turns out to be driven by an old customer called Abdullah.

The stoned conversation between "the guy" and Abdullah is sharply written and very funny, but also reveals a level of self-awareness that many shows lack. Much as the relationship between driver and passenger is transient, so, too, is the relationship between the characters of "High Maintenance" and its viewers. We are afforded fleeting glimpses into their lives, before we are dragged in another direction.

Meanwhile, Baruch and Anja have left the Shabbos table and moved on to a night club, where, fueled by alcohol and weed, the ex-Hassid dances like a man possessed. He attracts the attention of Marina and they connect. When the club eventually closes, Baruch and Anja move on to a nearby bodega, where he chokes on a tuna bagel. As Baruch lies unconscious on the floor, another customer – a drag queen who has just finished performing at the same club and who happens to be a doctor – performs an emergency tracheotomy, saving Baruch's life. That's how the episode ends: a brief moment of connection, of interconnectedness.

The role of "the guy" is not just to serve as plot facilitator, however. His interactions with his customers and peripheral characters is central to the understated charm of "High Maintenance." He is friend, advisor and mentor; he dispenses sage wisdom along with his vape pens and edibles. He is Taoist in the face of adversity, gregarious and caring. His patience is seemingly inexhaustible and he is – despite or because of his profession – a good guy.

Master mathematician and satirist Tom Lehrer was being sarcastic when he sang, way back in 1953, about the "old dope peddler with his powdered happiness." The pedaling dope peddler of "High Maintenance" really is doing good.

"High Maintenance" addresses many of the issues, which are given a heavy-handed treatment by other shows, with a lightness of touch and compassion that are often very moving. The episode which followed one hectic night in the life of a Hispanic busboy, which culminated with the busboy, his son and a carriage full of half-asleep subway passengers playing with a balloon, was affectionate and human.

Even in its handling of a national disaster, the show stands out. In the first episode of Season 2 of its HBO incarnation, the characters are reeling in the aftermath of some unspecified tragedy to have befallen the United States. Without mentioning what, exactly, has happened, the writers manage to capture the sense of shock that envelopes the city: two people are seen crying and hugging on a park bench; strangers are comforting each other; even the social-media obsessed fitness fanatic decides that posting his latest gym-related accomplishment on Snapchat would be in bad taste.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions believes that "good people don't smoke marijuana." Of course, among marijuana smokers – and among "the guy's" clientele – there are definitely some "bad people." He even has them listed in his phone as "assholes." But "the guy" is one of the good guys and "High Maintenance" is one of the good shows.



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