The stoner comedy isn’t always considered to have intelligent, cohesive storytelling. It’s loosely structured, the characters are high all the time (the main source of the humor) and more often than not, there are scenes of ridiculous slapstick, kooky psychedelic trips and ironic melodrama. But when contextualized in a more timely, socially relevant setting, the stoner comedy can actually be an enlightening commentary on how a person’s need for weed informs their neuroses. HBO’s criminally underrated series “High Maintenance” has already taken that step — and then some.
Ben Sinclair (“Home Again”) and Katja Blichfeld (“30 Rock”) co-created, co-wrote and co-directed “High Maintenance” as a Vimeo web series back in 2012. Though the show has grown tremendously since its humble origins, the premise has remained the same: A nameless Brooklyn weed dealer, known simply as The Guy (played by Sinclair), delivers pot to a variety of clients. Its anthology format gives us a glimpse into the private lives of The Guy’s regular buyers, who range from the ordinary to the eccentric.
“High Maintenance” may share some the formulaic qualities that define other cannabis-tinged farces, but it’s no “Pineapple Express” or “Cheech and Chong”; it’s something much, much better. Sinclair and Blichfeld’s humanistic approach to the stoner comedy redefines the subgenre entirely. The two have crafted a deceptively meticulous and aesthetically radiant world, replete with sharp, insightful and entertaining vignettes of people from all different backgrounds. Because every episode introduces new characters, most of whom are unknown actors (save for a few), “High Maintenance” excels at capturing the multidimensionality of contemporary society better than most TV shows currently on air.
While the first season was focused more on the lifestyles of New York City potheads, the second season explores the role of weed as a coping mechanism in the Trump era. In the wonderful season opener “Globo,” The Guy and his girlfriend Beth (Yael Stone, “Orange is the New Black”) awaken to news of a horrible unnamed tragedy — the details are kept vague, but their reactions mirror the national devastation felt the day after Trump’s election. Instead of depicting the people affected by Trump’s imminent presidency, “Globo” focuses on the marginal experiences of The Guy’s unaffected clientele: A body-insecure man is pressured to go to the gym, a woman and two dudes engage in a threesome at a hotel and a burned-out Latino restaurant worker takes the late-night subway. Conversations about the tragedy are peppered throughout “Globo,” and The Guy appears briefly in each subplot, but it’s the episode’s theme of modern dread that ties everything together. The mere averageness of each character and how they move through the world draw attention to the weight of their ongoing angst, and weed, as a result, helps them get through the day.
The second season also benefits from the addition of creative voices behind the scenes. While Sinclair and Blichfeld’s dual collaboration was enough to build “High Maintenance” to what it is, the expansion of a writer’s room and a new director (Shaka King, “Newlyweeds”) help cultivate fresh perspectives on weed culture. The third episode, “Namaste,” illustrates the challenges of class divides through the idealistic aspirations of a struggling realtor attempting to find a new home of her own (Danielle Brooks, “Master of None”) and a disillusioned couple moving from a co-op to a polished apartment. The fifth episode, “Scromple,” lets us know more about the personal life of The Guy, as it reveals a deeper, quieter pain buried underneath his generally nonchalant demeanor. The Guy’s subtle suffering in this particular episode is made only more devastating by Sinclair’s understated performance.
Granted, “High Maintenance” may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Most stories end without any closure, often abruptly transitioning right to the next set of characters — think Richard Linklater’s “Slacker” but with more marijuana. Most episodes don’t have a typical conflict/resolution setup, instead showcasing the randomness of everyday life, either through poignant incidental situations (a drag queen and an exiled Orthodox Jew cross paths in the standout “Derech”) or hilariously strange coincidences (a pet snake slithers into two unrelated storylines in the amusing “Fagin”). But even if its unconventional, unpredictable plotting isn’t tailor-made for mainstream audiences, “High Maintenance” is still such a fascinating, magnetic watch. It’s a show that feels very in the moment, striking a unique balance between universality and specificity through the everyday experiences of flawed, weed-loving people.