‘High Maintenance’ premiere lights up darkest lows and humble highs
Long after the smoke has cleared, after the amusing foreignness of your environment dissipates, all that’s left is you. And who are you? HBO’s “High Maintenance” may be a comedy whose heart is cannabis, but its soul belongs to the characters. It seeks to answer that very question. With a lingering and intimate focus on its characters, from their darkest moments to their greatest highs, “High Maintenance”’s third season looks to be as profound and remarkable as its predecessors, and it’s only the beginning.
The Guy (Ben Sinclair, “Home Again”) is not the show’s main character. He’s more of an atmosphere or a medium through which comes into being. His selling weed is not a catalyst, but a bit of momentum for the story. Entitled “M.A.S.H.,” this episode finds the Guy removed from the brownstone-clad streets of his natural Brooklyn habitat to the arborescent landscape of Upstate New York. This time, he’s not on his iconic bicycle, but instead floating downstream on a paddleboard, finding peace after his ex-wife came out as gay and his girlfriend returned to Australia in the previous season.
Upstate, we’re introduced to Berg (Chuck Montgomery, “Fay Grim”), a fellow weed dealer and old friend of the Guy’s. Berg dies immediately, leaving behind his tired and messy friend Cori (Erin Markey, “Shortbus”). Cori has no one else. She cleans Airbnbs for money. She drinks her days away at the local bar. She throws Berg a memorial where everyone has something to say about him — except for Cori, who puts her grief into keeping the memorial going. (The Guy also attends this memorial but, like Cori, can’t seem to get a word in.) It’s the focus on these forgotten characters in an otherwise forgotten, white-trash town that makes “High Maintenance” so striking. Cori exists almost as background noise to other characters. People are put off by her. Some avoid her. But in the world of the Guy, everyone and everything they do matters.
That includes Leigh (Britt Lower, “Sisters”), whom the Guy meets at the lake. The two spend the day chatting about love, heartbreak and kindness deep into the night. They talk about playing the game M.A.S.H. as kids and what being divorced is like. The effortlessness of their relationship comes through in the way the Guy smiles at her, and the way Leigh pokes fun at him. While lying on her bed, the Guy’s voice cracks, and Leigh teases him. The real beauty of their interactions is how obvious it is that they like each other. They never need to say it, you just know. The Guy sleeps over in Leigh’s bed, but only sleeps. Their infatuation is so kind and pure and gentle that it feels like you're privy to moments of intimacy you shouldn't be allowed to see. For a show whose humor is its penchant, “M.A.S.H.” is a dark episode, perhaps darker than the series is used to. But Leigh and the Guy provide relief — some genuine happiness to get lost in.
In “High Maintenance,” no character feels like an actor. It feels as though you’ve known at least a version of every single character at some point or another. It’s real and unconscious of everything but life. Because it’s so sincere, it can often lead to dark places. In the final moments of the episode, Cori discovers an old mixtape Berg made for her birthday. She plays it, laughs, cries and laughs again, like all the emotions she repressed the entire episode are finally pouring out. There may not be a happy ending in the traditional sense, but that's because there's something more: a moment of earnestness. In the end, the answer to the question, “Who are you?” is not a description. The answer is that you matter.