'High Maintenance' Creators Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld Told Us How to Stop Feeling Lonely
We got deep with the creators of the HBO stoner dramedy to see how they cope with loneliness. Hint: It's weed... sort of.
Photo by David Russell. Images courtesy HBO
This article originally appeared on VICE US.
The third season of High Maintenance, HBO’s funny drama about Brooklyn’s go-to weed dealer and the weirdos he serves, started last Sunday. Throughout its journey from indie web series to prestige stoner art, co-creators Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld have written some of the most nuanced and empathetic portrayals of loneliness on TV.
There’s the agoraphobe who is so consumed by taking care of his mother that he relies on The Guy (Sinclair) for human interaction, even though neither he nor his ailing mom smoke. There’s the toxic duo who burn all their bridges, finally getting blocked by The Guy when they steal from his stash. And there’s The Guy himself, who has been living down the hall from his wife, Julia (Kate Lynn Sheil), even as they negotiate a divorce and she lives with her new girlfriend.
The third season finds The Guy completely alone after escaping New York City about two weeks after he and Julia took a selfie to commemorate signing their divorce papers. The episode also introduces an old mentor and perhaps father figure to The Guy—a radio DJ, pot dealer, and man-about-town named Berg. Within minutes of appearing onscreen, he dies alone in his bathtub. His memorial service is packed with well-wishers eager to celebrate his life. "His cup overflowed," an ex-girlfriend says, smiling broadly. We see how loved he was by his community, yet the fact that his body was discovered by his neighbor the day after he died is terrifying. It’s a stark message about inescapable mortality, and the very real possible outcomes of isolated living.
By the end of the first episode, The Guy has found a connection with a new potential partner: a soon-to-be-divorced color consultant named Lee (Britt Lower). In their first conversation, he asks her what colors she associates with abstract words. The number six is "curry," summertime is "peach," and loneliness, she says immediately, is, "Indigo. Definitely." He responds deliberately with a nod, an eyebrow wiggle, and a solemn, "Yeah."
This scene is just the beginning of what’s shaping up to be a season grappling with the loneliness of city life, the loneliness within relationships, the loneliness of running a weed business, and the loneliness inherent in humanity’s mortality. It's not a shock that this melancholy saturates the show: it's an epidemic with a nasty grip on the generation that grew up with social media. Loneliness is a public health crisis that makes people more likely to suffer from disease and mental illness, and it correlates to a shorter lifespan. High Maintenance is a patchwork of its creators' own experiences and observations, and through it they acknowledge how human it is to feel lonely. The third season will grapple with it more directly than ever since The Guy's divorce is loosely based on the end of Sinclair and Blichfeld’s own real life marriage.
We asked Sinclair and Blichfeld how they deal with loneliness in their lives and on their show. The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.
VICE: I wanted to start with one scene that really stuck out to me, when The Guy meets Lee for the first time and they talk about indigo being the color of loneliness. How did that scene come about?
Ben Sinclair: Our plot points are a collage of moments and things. Like for the job color consultant, I met somebody who has that job and I had a lot of questions about it. And I just kind of transposed those questions. We landed on indigo because blue is inarguably a lonely color. Indigo just is the color of loneliness, they even have songs about it. Writing that scene was just jumping into a fun conversation.
Katja Blichfield: It's funny that bigger meanings get extrapolated from these moments, because actually recalling the process, I'm like, "Oh, yeah, I feel like we just said indigo in service of like, some Indigo Girls joke that was to follow the exchange, and that's how we landed on that." But then we were like, "Oh, yeah, indigo? Yes, that is actually like, a moody color, the color of loneliness." But it wasn't like we were trying to be so poetic. It's like Ben said, the process is a collage-y patchwork of moments that get strung together and then some get taken out and get in or get a rewrite. Then what you see in the end is what you see.
Sinclair: But one of the things we did want to show about being upstate was that there was a lonely quality to it. That was one of the goals of the episode. And we wanted to, in that moment, show that Lee and The Guy had something in common, which is that they had been lonely.
Blichfield: Yeah. And it was more of a bittersweet loneliness for The Guy, who has just given himself a break from work to go away from the city and enjoy himself. Then he finds himself actually alone, and a little bit antsy, and swiping on Tinder looking for connection. We wanted to showcase that.
Examining loneliness resonates with a lot of people these days, and we have a lot of trouble dealing with it.
Sinclair: The thing is, we're just so comfortable. The fact that The Guy would be able to get this recreational vehicle and just drive around, that's a luxury, right? The fact that we have these little computers in our hands that connect us to other "people," like Tinder, that's a luxury. Yet we feel more alone than ever, despite our comfort. There's just no way to get around that. You can't escape yourself.
Blichfield: There are studies that show the more affluent a society is, the more loneliness you're going to find.
Sinclair: The single unit can afford everything one needs. The single unit doesn't have to depend on others when they are more affluent. And it turns out, depending on others is part of the whole connective ecstasy that we're all missing out on because we're so busy trying to prove that we are unique and special and can do it all ourselves.
Blichfield: Yeah, which is very American.
Sinclair: Very our generation.
Blichfield: Yeah, it's a one-two combo of the American spirit, a drive towards individualism and independence, which is a prized quality. Plus we're the technology generation where, as Ben said, it is actually alienating us, little by little. There are aspects to it that are uniting, though. I do think there's something to be said for the internet and social media being a space where people who feel lonely or on the fringes can find a community in places where they might not physically have one. But there is a tipping point where too many hours spent on your device or on the internet space does push people towards extreme loneliness.
I want to throw into the mix a definition of solitude from Georgetown professor Cal Newport. He says it’s a “state in which you’re isolated from input from other minds.” So time spent alone in your apartment scrolling on your phone or reading a book isn’t solitude, since other people are filling up your mind. The difference between solitude and loneliness is about access to your own internal dialogue, which is what I feel is going on when we first see The Guy paddleboarding in the woods and smoking a joint.
Sinclair: Yeah. And also, I would go a step further attitudinally, and say that loneliness is against your will. It's being alone, being by yourself against your will, wishing that it weren't happening. And solitude is an elected position to make for oneself.
Blichfield: I think that's true. But I also think you can feel lonely in a crowd. Like, I do think it's possible. I've experienced that a lot. And I've said that before. For some reason, loneliness in this city, in particular, feels especially sharp because you have this contrast of physical bodies. Like the sheer number of bodies around you at any given moment, or the proximity of people, does this weird trick on your mind that, you know, makes you feel worse about your lonely state of mind because you feel like it's in your power at any point to join people who are all around you. Yet for whatever reason, you're not. I think that that kind of loneliness can feel especially bad.
Sinclair: The reason is, because if you opened yourself up walking around the city, you would be toast.
Sinclair: If you were open, and friendly and kind and willing to stop and take a moment to get to know your neighbor, you wouldn't get anywhere.
Blichfeld and Sinclair, simultaneously: There's too much.
Sinclair: So as a necessity of living here, we have to filter it all out. And I think we tend to over-filter our community because we need to stay sane and get from point A to point B.
Blichfield: Sure. Survive. Yeah.
And loneliness is worse in cities. Do you have any advice for combating loneliness in New York?
Blichfield: Well, uh...
Blichfeld and Sinclair, simultaneously: Smoking pot.
Blichfield: Smoking pot is the number one thing that we've turned to in our lives. I think a lot of people turn to substances to make themselves feel better.
Sinclair: It's not an antidote, though.
Blichfield: It's more of a coping mechanism
Sinclair: Yeah, it's a painkiller. It doesn't solve anything.
It does bring people together.
Blichfield: It can. But a lot of the time we’re portraying it on the show, people are using it solo in their home. A lot of this season, you see people using it to numb bad feelings and feelings of loneliness.
Sinclair: It's helpful in that you have neuroses and your brain shouting negative shit at you all the time, and it quiets you down for a second. And all that shit is fake anyway, it's just your brain spitting out thoughts because that's its job. And the weed does help you for a second stop fixating on those things that are bumming you out. And it increases your appreciation, or at least your attention to the more goofy or minuscule pleasures.
Blichfield: Hopefully it does those things. But I think we both have found over time and for long use— because the both of us have been smoking for a long time regularly—there can also come a point where it doesn't work. At its best, it temporarily relieves you from those negative feelings or absolves you from weird guilt and shame you have for not doing X, Y, or Z. But I do think we both come around to this fact that when it wears off, you are still stuck with yourself. You still have to deal. You can't be stoned 24/8. That's not the way to be. The way to get through something is to actually go through it, and you have to be willing to feel discomfort for a little while. There aren't any true shortcuts.
Sinclair: If you truly can't stand it anymore, weed is a great way to take the pressure off of yourself. But if you want to get through it you have to be uncomfortable for a little while whatever it is to you.
In 2017, I went dancing a lot. And that was really helpful. It's so non-intellectual. I would go to this one dance party that was from seven to 10 pm every other Thursday. And people would recognize me or whatever, but for some reason at that party everyone really just let loose.
You'd go by yourself?
Sinclair: Yeah, sometimes I'd be there and just stand straight for three or four hours.
I'm getting anxious just thinking about doing that.
Blichfield: Yeah, same. I wouldn't do that either.
Sinclair: But I mean, for me personally, loneliness is my greatest fear for sure. When I was not doing well in my 20s, before I met Katja, I remember my greatest fear was looking at a homeless person and thinking, "That's going to be me one day."
Blichfield: I mean, yeah, I feel that way too. I think about that all the time. I don't think I'm having any children in my lifetime. That's definitely a place my mind goes to.
Sinclair: So we're writing about our greatest fears.
Blichfield: Pretty much. I always have a romantic partner in my life, and that's probably largely due to my fear of being alone.
Sinclair: Pretty much the same for me.
It feels like a little bit of that anxiety was channeled into the character of Berg, who dies alone in his bathtub. And all these smiling people show up for his funeral, but he's still wound up dying alone in the bathtub. That's so scary!
Sinclair: I mean, we're all gonna die alone. You can't take anybody or anything with you. At the very end, it's just you, always. Always!
Blichfield: Yeah, and I think we're just thinking a lot about that these days. The older we get.
Conan is saying shit like that, too. Did you read his interview in the New York Times? He said something like, “eventually, all our graves go unattended ."
Sinclair: I hope I get to talk to him this year. Because I when I read that I was like, "My man." The Guy is clearly a bit lonely in the beginning of this new season. Are we going to see him power through that, and escape the anesthetic power of weed to move through his issues?
Sinclair: I think that the appearance of a kind and attractive woman showing up right as he is contemplating mortality is evidence that he might be not facing it.
Blichfield: It's like, another drug.
Sinclair: He's trying to find something else, instead of just accepting himself and being alone. There’s that fidgety quality of him checking his Tinder when there's a beautiful lake right next to him. That is the sign that he's not okay with that beautiful lake.
Blichfield: And being alone with himself.
Sinclair: So once there's a conveniently placed distraction, we're really going to have him go through what happens when you try to distract yourself from a nagging issue that won't go away.
If he's not able to face his loneliness, then can anybody?
Sinclair: Hey, man, here's the deal. We're all on this planet right now because we all have shit to work out. If we all worked out our stuff, we would be in Nirvana. Right? We wouldn't have to be reincarnated, if you believe in that, to work our shit out. So we all have something to do on this planet. The Guy is just like anyone else in that way.
Do you feel like High Maintenance is what you were put on this earth to accomplish?
Sinclair: If this is it, that's pretty good.
So, are we finally going to learn his name this season, or ever?
Sinclair: Not this season.
High Maintenance airs Sundays on HBO.