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'High Maintenance' Still Isn't Cynical About Modern Life

The fourth season of Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld's HBO show sees the world as more than a dumpster fire, and thank god for that.

by Bettina Makalintal
Feb 7 2020, 12:00pm

Photo by David Russell courtesy HBO

When I first discovered High Maintenance a few years ago, I found the show so immediately delightful that I watched every episode available (about 19 at the time) and then re-watched, and watched a third time, all in the span of one winter weekend. One could call this "overkill," but in my defense, that it was a Vimeo short made this a fairly socially acceptable time commitment, and as it stands, I haven't since found myself so pleased by a show. As High Maintenance has transitioned from short web series to HBO show, that feeling remains.

Created and directed by Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair, the anthology-style High Maintenance follows Sinclair as "The Guy," a scruffy weed dealer who cycles through New York delivering his goods to the messy, idiosyncratic New Yorkers who need something to soften their neuroses. There's the cross-dressing stay-at-home dad; the asexual amateur magician who's also a high school teacher; the depressed vet who microdoses mushrooms; the doctor who, while in drag, saves a life in a bodega; the girl who spends too much time online and eventually, yes, winds up writing for VICE. Nobody is perfect, but High Maintenance sees everyone's good side.

The show's fourth season, which premieres on HBO today, starts with Yara, a producer at This American Life, and partner Owen as they celebrate their anniversary in the midst of Yara's first big radio story. In the way that relationships sometimes go, heightened by work stress and a bad case of stoner brain, someone says the wrong thing, and an otherwise good day goes wrong.

From there, we meet Arnold, whose thankless job as a singing telegram means he's having a very bad, "need to get changed in the back of a cab" kind of day. When Yara, Owen, and Arnold's paths cross, there's the sense that everyone makes it up to each other somehow: Yara and Owen are more than their fight, and Arnold isn't just a stranger at the door.

In a time of ceaseless cynicism and well-deserved anxiety, when we quickly and flippantly write off the world and the people in it as a "dumpster fire," High Maintenance rises above. Situating itself in the everyday moments of New York life, High Maintenance's biggest—and perhaps most unattainable—fantasy is that modern city life isn't at odds with an unwavering ability to see the good in the people around you. As the show enters its fourth season, that lack of cynicism continues to carry it through. People exist in High Maintenance to build each other up, not to tear each other down. The result is a show that feels like nothing else on television, and thank god for that.

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Photo by David Russell courtesy HBO

In this mess of characters, only two are truly awful: a pair aptly known as "The Assholes," whose toxic friendship prompts them to take advantage of each other, steal from The Guy, and to even fake participation in Alcoholics Anonymous as a dating and networking opportunity. Everyone else, however, gets a chance to not just be themselves, but to also be seen at their most redeeming moments.

The third season on HBO, for example, introduces Arturo and Adriana, a couple who purchase a reborn doll named Nico to help them grieve the loss of their child. Adriana is excited about the baby, caring for it as she would a real infant, but Arturo isn't convinced. He tosses Nico like a doll and scoffs at Adriana's fussing. One day, while shopping, Arturo leaves the baby outside on the street. The cops are called, and the fake baby becomes a public fiasco. Still, when the traumatic experience is all over, Arturo reassures Adriana, "You're the mommy." Later, we see him at home, gently tending to baby Nico with no prodding needed. Maybe, in season four, we'll meet them again.

Perhaps a byproduct of having started out as a web short is that each episode of High Maintenance feels conclusive. It's never clear if we'll see a character again, though that's changed a bit the longer the show is on TV, and beyond The Guy's life, it's uncommon for story arcs to extend over multiple episodes. The result of that format is that we meet a character, we see their conflict and their downsides, but then, quickly, we see how they change our minds and how they redeem themselves in the end. With so many characters, one episode might have two or three of these mini-arcs, each of them ending with a sense of relief.

A common thread of High Maintenance is to highlight the effort that goes into maintaining relationships and helping them grow, even if we don't always see those efforts at first glance. Yara and Owen might have messed up, but they find ways to bridge the gap because, ultimately, they love each other. Arturo shows Adriana that he really cares, even if he doesn't fully agree with her approach towards grief. Part of the show's refreshing perspective is that it sees little, everyday efforts as worth celebrating.

So much of television is about heightening everything to its most unrelatable ends, but High Maintenance stews in the less showy nuance of daily life instead: the fight with a long-term partner that you know isn't the end but sucks nonetheless, the things you agree to in order to keep other people happy, the doldrums of going to a job that you don't love. In everyday life, most of us aren't heroes or villains. We're just people doing our best, and High Maintenance sees how much we're all trying.

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Tagged:
HBO
High Maintenance
Katja Blichfeld
Ben Sinclair