'High Maintenance' Is the Voice of a Stoned Generation

We met the creators of HBO's brilliant new show about a friendly neighborhood weed-slinger and his city full of hilarious and very human clients.

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Sep 15 2016, 4:00am

Illustration by Elizabeth Renstrom. Photo by Paul Kwiatkowski/courtesy of HBO

Who knows more about you than your weed guy? Dealers are the people you call when you're celebrating as well as when you're at your lowest, the people who you share a secret with and may even invite to a birthday party. It's a more personal, more weighted interaction than you have with your local supermarket clerk or even your liquor-store counterman. The person who gives you your weed may not be your friend, but they are, unavoidably, your confidant.

So it's no surprise that High Maintenance, HBO's fantastic new comedy that premieres Friday, is one of TV's best, most closely observed shows about life in New York, with an eye for funny-absurd-sad details you'd only see if you spent your days going in and out of strangers' apartments.

Centered on a small-time weed dealer called the Guy (played by co-creator Ben Sinclair), each episode is set in the residence of one of his mostly Brooklyn-based clients. The show is true to its roots as Vimeo's first original web series, and happily, Sinclair and his fellow showrunner Katja Blichfeld haven't let the increased responsibility and pressure that comes with a full-on prestige cable comedy dilute any of what made their web series great.

Instead, Sinclair and Blichfield have used their new platform (and resources) to tackle more ambitious themes, particularly immigrant stories of the sort that TV often ignores. In episode two, a rebellious teenager (Shazi Raja) tries to navigate the pressures and expectations of her Pakistani Muslim family. In episode four, we get the perspectives of a can-collecting older Chinese couple (Kristen Hung and Clem Cheung) and their Berlin-based experimental musician son. Another standout is Max Jenkins's reprisal of his web-series character, Max, the insufferable "gay husband" of the equally insufferable Lainey (Heléne Yorke), who decides to make some positive changes in his life, much to Lainey's chagrin. Interspersed throughout, viewers also get more tantalizing glimpses into the Guy's personal life, outside of all the weed-slinging. (There's also an entire episode from the point of view of a dog, which is as affecting as it is artful.)

What's most consistently striking about High Maintenance is the effortless yet stylish way it succeeds in depicting what it's like to be a New Yorker today. It's a town where everyone is griping about your work or your apartment, and the show is a wildly effective dramatization of those two pillars of New York concern. For me, the show is also eerily personal, both in terms of its situations and its spot-on art direction. I watch and am constantly thinking things like: That's my leather jacket. There's our frying pan and Elena Ferrante books. I, too, have been yelled at for casually disrespecting a memorial. I am not exaggerating. The Guy and I literally own the same shirt, which we both cuff the same way:

Ben Sinclair as the Guy (left) and the author, a.k.a. me (right)

I met Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld earlier this week at HBO headquarters in Manhattan to talk about the new season, how a city that complains together remains together, and whether weed will ever not be inherently funny. They were as warm, witty, and well-dressed, as you'd expect.

VICE: More than any other show, I'm constantly seeing objects and situations from my own life depicted on the show. Is this something you guys get a lot from people, that the show really hits home in these funny, sad, or even uncomfortable ways?
Katja Blichfeld: Yes, we do. I think it's 'cause we're all living in the same area code, really. [Ben and I are] always just capturing what we're seeing. When we worked with our art department, too, we were trying to make sure the spaces looked like people lived in them, and not like a set decorator came in and put a bunch of stuff in there.

For example, every apartment we scouted, I remember this one week, we were laughing because all the books [were the same]: Purity by Jonathan Franzen, all the Elena Ferrante books, Zadie Smith, Jonathan Safran Foer, Junot Díaz. At the same time, everyone's got their Vitamix on the counter. There are just things that carry over, and you can't help but notice. And we're like, "We have to make sure those things are there." So, like, yeah, no shit, you're like, "That's my thing!" 'cause, hey, we live in Brooklyn, and––

Ben Sinclair: And capitalism works. [Laughing]

Blichfeld: And capitalism works. There you go. If you make a certain amount of income and you can have a weed guy coming to deliver your weed, chances are you might have some of the same material trappings that your neighbor's enjoying. It's like, that's all you've got sometimes, is what you're putting on your body, what tote bag you're carrying, what book you're reading on the subway. There are so few signifiers. There are only so many things you can get by seeing a person out in public.

"I think the communal suffering is the glue of New York."

Sinclair: And also, we don't like exposition. We hate clunky exposition when we're watching TV, and there's no faster way of showing something about somebody than—

Blichfeld: Just showing it.

Sinclair: We don't have to tell why you want this, or what you like about it. If you're wearing it, I know you like it.

Blichfeld: And maybe some references are lost on some people, but we don't mind.

Lainey and Max at a Greenpoint diner. Photo by David Russell/courtesy of HBO

A friend noted the connection between the Humans of New York blog and High Maintenance, in the way that both try to depict New York as a kind of village where we get intimate access to people's stories and lives. How do you reconcile this idea of New York as a village of these unique and, I think, ultimately life-affirming stories, with the myriad ways in which the city can beat you down, rendering us anonymous and dehumanized and alone?
Sinclair: I think the communal suffering is what is the glue of New York. The fact that communally we all understand that you don't come here and just skate by, unless you own an apartment here that you're never in anyway, so we don't see you. Oligarchs, whatever.

We show all of these little indignities of living in New York. And that's what New Yorkers bond over. [It's] like: "What a pain in the ass." "God, you can't bring anything with you during your day, gotta go home and..." There are all of these things that are familiar to us, and that's really how we communicate with one another here.

Blichfeld: Through complaining?

Sinclair: Through complaining.

That reminds me of that Onion article where it's like, "8.4 Million New Yorkers Suddenly Realize New York Is a Horrible Place to Live" and then immediately leave.
Sinclair: I remember that one. That was a really funny one.

The easiest way to make friends with a stranger is to find something else to complain about.
Blichfeld: Yeah. "It's so fucking hot." Or, "When is this train gonna come?" or, "The MTA sucks..."

How much do you consider High Maintenance to be a "New York show"?
Blichfeld: I think it's very New York. We are observing New Yorkers and writing specifically about what we observe, both in our personal lives and what's going on in the street. I think the show probably is still more about the urban experience than anything.

Sinclair: I think the reason it is New York–specific is because weed dealing is still illegal [in the city]. But the system is such that people generally go into people's apartments. And that is the kind of interaction that we're chasing: the moment when somebody goes into somebody else's apartment and has an effect on their life.

"You might not think at the outset that a Chinese immigrant can-collecting couple would have anything to do with my parents, who were not Chinese and did not do that for a living. But there's overlap."

You guys have talked about how each episode is drawn from your own experience. But in the new season, we get some immigrant stories, such as the Pakistani Muslim family and the Chinese bottle collectors and their experimental musician son. Has the process of writing these stories been very different than in the past? Has this been part of a goal for you guys, to kind of move beyond your immediate friend circle?
Blichfeld: Definitely. But one of the challenges to that was that it's a referral-based service we're characterizing. And so, logically, only certain kinds of people know one another. People know one another from a work circle, or a social context. So it would make sense that people coming to this character are mostly coming from the same pool of people. So there was an inherent challenge in trying to branch out without it seeming like, "Well, how did these people get connected?" And what we concluded was, we don't have to make them customers. The Guy can have a brush with some people, but he doesn't have to sell them weed. So I think we just started from there, and then we were just like, "Who do we see all the time in the city?" And obviously the answers are infinite, but I think––

Sinclair: I mean, they're personal, too, though—

Blichfeld: Like, my parents are immigrants; I also grew up in a semi-religious household where there was some multiple-choice religion going on. You know what I mean? [Laughs] Where it was like, "Well, we follow some of those rituals and customs, but not all of them." You might not think at the outset that a Chinese immigrant can-collecting couple would have anything to do with my parents, who were not Chinese and did not do that for a living. But there's overlap, and similarly with the Eesha [Shazi Raja] story too, and for you [ to Ben] as well. Like, you were a teen sneaking your cigarettes and peeping. We were just like: "Why don't we open our minds as to who can have these experiences?" They don't have to just be some creative professional living in Bushwick.

Sinclair: Once we [decided] to be someone else with our emotions, then we filled out the details with whomever we might have been working with. Shazi Raja, who played the Muslim teenager, helped us out by being like, "Well, when I go visit my religious aunt and uncle, this, this, and this happens. I behave this this and this way." So, it was just adding to what was true.

Are there any stories that you guys feel that you can't write about, or haven't yet figured out how to write about?
Sinclair: You know, we've attempted to write stories that are extremely personal. We almost wrote one story where you, as the viewer, would've been like, "Oh, they're writing about themselves. And they're being raw about it." And I think that episode—we had to stop. It was too hard to write. We had to keep some privacy to ourselves.

I'm curious how High Maintenance fits (or doesn't fit) into the evolution of stoner comedies. The Times recently did a piece on you guys, and I think it was smart, but they described the Guy as "bumbling." And that was really interesting to me because I think it sort of calls back to the whole history of stoner comedies. But he's not really bumbling. Shit happens to him, but he's not a fool or a clown.
Blichfeld: Not a fool or a clown, but we have demonstrated over and over that he has a tendency to put his foot in his mouth, or like––

Sinclair: Well, he's too open.

Blichfeld: Yeah, sometimes his boundaries are messed up. I think that's probably what they meant. In the very first episode we ever made, he puts his foot in his mouth and talks about prescription.

Sinclair: "Bumbling" is a different word, though.

Blichfeld: I might have used a different word, too.

Sinclair: But I don't know what the word is yet. Someone else commented [that] the Guy's a little less cheery and more guarded this season. And, you know, we're the writers, and I'm the Guy, even though he's a better version of my best side or whatever.

Blichfeld: But also we had to acknowledge that.

Sinclair: It's New York.

Blichfeld: It's fucking hard to live here. Why would the Guy be any exception to crumbling under the stress and anxiety of being a small business entrepreneur? Of course he's getting beat down, too.

Will weed ever not be inherently funny?
Sinclair:
When you deal with people getting over terminal diseases, it's not very funny.

Blichfeld: Or when they're an addict, and it's just, like, one of many things they're addicted to. When they're shirking real responsibilities and neglecting people's needs and their own needs. Then it's not funny.

What's going to happen to the Guy if/when weed becomes legalized? Is he worried about eventually losing his job? What would he do instead?
Blichfeld: Wow, people really want to know the answer to that. It doesn't really concern us at this time. It's not something we think about, it's not something we consider when we're writing these stories. It's going to be quite a long time that recreational legalization is so widespread that there's no need for the Guy's services. That being said, could he have another career? Absolutely. Are we going to talk about it here? No way, José!

Follow James Yeh on Twitter.

High Maintenance premieres on Friday, September 16 at 11 PM on HBO.

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