Remember when the only good stoner TV was on Adult Swim? Well somehow, the much-touted Golden Age of Television has given us a few weed-centric shows that are excellent to watch even if you’re dead sober. And surprisingly, they rose out of the muck of the internet.
The Age of the Web Series
Starting a web series became something of a cliche in the 2010s. Drawn to the DIY ease of distributing an original show online, budding actors and filmmakers packed Kickstarter full of pitches and spec pilots, hoping for a shot at storytelling glory. Although a lot of these half-baked projects fizzled, a few stood out and even made the leap to network TV. Broad City was one, handpicked by executive producer Amy Poehler for development on Comedy Central.
Luckily, there’s room on cable for another weed comedy. High Maintenance, written, directed, and starred in by husband and wife team Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld, premiered on Vimeo in 2012 and quickly picked up a cult following. Each short five to twelve minute web episode features a weed delivery man (known throughout the course of the show as simply “The Guy”) as he bikes to different customers around New York City. It’s a deceptively simple premise that lets Sinclair and Blichfeld lay out an extremely detailed cross-section of urban life.
Everyone Gets High
In each episode, we get micro-portraits of people who belong to a seemingly endless spectrum of demographic groups and subcultures. Highlights include: a lesbian couple who are too humane to kill a mouse in their apartment; a Helen Hunt-obsessed shut-in; a middle-aged woman looking for alternative cancer treatments; coked-up fashion industry assholes; and a young black survivalist. Some of these personalities are eerily recognizable, but they’re well-developed enough to feel totally original. The show’s production design is also familiar, with vaguely mumblecore dialogue and stylishly low-key interiors (many of the apartment scenes are filmed in the cast and crew's own homes).
Almost Too Real for Comfort
In fact, some of the episodes feel so realistic and tense that they’re uncomfortable to watch. This is especially the case in “Sabrina,” the last installment of the show’s web incarnation, in which The Guy and a bunch of people he doesn't know spend a weekend in the country doing mushrooms. The viewer has no frame of reference for these people’s entwined relationships or individual personalities and is forced to puzzle out some cryptic exchanges of dialogue.
The resulting sense of confusion and dread does feel a lot like being high in unfamiliar surroundings. Indeed, High Maintenance isn’t the most lighthearted comedy -- many episodes end in some shockingly dark plot twists that are all the more jarring, given the show’s otherwise casual tone. It's amazing that the show pulls off this poignancy and depth of character in such a short format. A lot of that has to do with its constantly shifting focus. A character who serves as a cheap punchline in one episode may end up being the protagonist of another — for example, the aforementioned fashion assholes pop up later in the series and reveal some biographical details that make them shockingly sympathetic.
The ubiquity of pot consumption on the show also serves as a subtle character-building device. The characters initially seem unconflicted about their smoking - it naturally fits into their lifestyles. As each episode winds down, though, we see that they have some have deep, complicated reasons for wanting to get high. Moments of real pathos amid the comedy remind us that the dissociative effects of weed can be a necessity in the insanity of 21st century urban life.
The Only Downside (If You Can Call it That)
If there's anything negative to say about High Maintenance, it’s that the show’s depiction of a delivery service is wildly romanticized. Strictly anecdotally speaking, it's not likely that a dealer as good looking, talkative, and effortlessly likable as The Guy (played by Sinclair himself) will show up at your door with a few eighths — let alone stick around long enough to become emotionally involved in your life. That said, The Guy’s exaggerated friendliness makes for some great banter with the revolving core cast and with some surprising cameo actors like Dan Stevens (Cousin Matthew from Downton Abbey) or Yael Stone (Morello from Orange Is The New Black).
Now Available on HBO
High Maintenance was picked up for expansion by HBO in 2015, vindicating the praise of the show’s small but vocal fan base. The new episodes, roughly half an hour long, pick up where the web series left off, showing The Guy bouncing between new characters and some old fan favorites.
There are plenty of great “only in New York!” moments (and as an aside, between High Maintenance, Girls, Sex and The City, Bored to Death, and How to Make it in America, it seems pretty clear that HBO is pushing some kind of young-people-in-NYC fetish), like The Guy having to chain his bike next to a ghost bike memorial.
The longer episodes have changed the show’s flow a bit too: rather than dwelling on a single set of characters for 30 minutes, it pieces together unrelated plots, without using a lot of transitional scenes. While it’s easy for existing fans to follow along, newcomers might find it jarring. Luckily, Season 1 and all 19 of the original webisodes are up on HBOGO and HBONOW, so it’s easy to catch up with a mini-binge watch. Season 2 premieres on HBO on Friday, January 19th. Obviously, you should smoke before watching. In the Season 1 pilot, The Guy calls out Dank Sinatra and OG Kush, so follow his lead. Pack a bowl full of one of those and hit play. Be warned, though: the dramatic tension building up to all those plot twists is pretty intense. It’s almost as if Sinclair and Blichfeld are tossing in some trippy mindfucks because they’re banking on the assumption that viewers will blaze before watching — and if that really is their intention, it works incredibly well.