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Review: ‘High Maintenance’ is a ‘Pot’ of Gold for Independent Television

Review: 'High Maintenance' is a 'Pot' of Gold for Independent Television

Let’s begin things with a decree: “High Maintenance” should never, ever, ever be a TV show.

Of course, now you’re saying, “But what is a TV show, these days?” And it’s true, the term has become a complex and ill-defined moniker. So let’s clarify: “High Maintanance” should never be anything than what it currently is — a charming online dramedy that plays like a sunny lazy Sunday afternoon, bringing in new faces (including some great guest stars) for one-off episodes driven by the adventures of The Guy (Ben Sinclair, who co-created the series) as he bikes around New York and his boroughs, delivering weed to those in need of herbal refreshment.

Yeah, technically this is a pot comedy, and in fact it’d be so easy for “High Maintenance” to succumb to the pun of its title. Yet with each year that passes it continues to manage a delicate balance between the gimmick of its premise and the original stories Sinclair and co-creator Katja Blichfeld want to tell. Marijuana is rarely the vehicle for the show’s narratives, but more an incidental part of life, lingering in the background, while some very human storytelling occurs. 

The show built an outstanding reputation for itself as a freely-distributed web series when it originally premiered in 2012; now, as Vimeo’s first paid VOD series, it may be one of the few current examples of actively-produced digital content that’s making some money. 

And part of that comes from it being possible to watch the episodes made prior to the Vimeo deal before committing to buying the latest cycles. (That’s right, kids, the first taste is free. Except in this case, that first taste is comprised of 13 episodes; Sinclair and Blichfeld are very generous about distributing their crack.) 

The three new installments, released today, can technically be watched in any order, like any “High Maintenance” episode, really, as the show’s anthology structure gives it relative freedom from continuity (though one character does appear in two of the episodes). As always, the episode names are simply the first names of characters, though in this case none of the people mentioned appear on camera:

“Sufjan”: A young couple moves out to the deepest depths of Brooklyn (but it’s cool, because Sufjan Stevens lives out there), necessitating a change in weed dealers.

“Esme”: We meet one of The Guy’s competitors, who dreams of the stage. 

“Sabrina”: The Guy accompanies friends on a drug-fueled weekend in the woods. 

It’s not high-octane storytelling, but in the 12-to-20 minute range, the gentle heart of each episode beats true. And the craft continues to be stellar: The opening minutes of “Sufjan” are just masterful on a technical level, nimbly navigating with crisp, swift confidence all the steps of a young couple moving to Ditmas Park (mental note: ask New York colleagues just how remote that is, in the grand scheme of Brooklyn). It’s all down to the writing and editing, and the execution makes the sequence into a light yet still breathless opening.

It’s all built from character, combined with a naturalistic approach to dialogue and acting that gives each episode a lived-in feel. And the format lends itself so well to a whimsy built entirely out of pot smoke and the random coincidences and collisions that come with life in New York. Guest stars this cycle include a duo from “Orange is the New Black” — Yael Stone and Tracee Chimo — and Sinclair, as always, brings an affable everyman energy to his role. 

“High Maintenance” does have flaws: For one thing, it always seems on the verge of completely losing perspective. But that goes hand-in-hand with one of the show’s best qualities: its self-awareness, which is on display especially when characters — who do tend to fall into the category of young, white and privileged — acknowledge just how good they have it. In “Sabrina,” a character even mocks a friend who makes a day-in-the-life web series. (It’s a web series that’s apparently under consideration to become a television show — spoiler alert, it doesn’t happen.)

And if “High Maintenance” meets a similar fate, and never deviates from the path it’s on, that’s probably for the best. It’s so well-made for the web that for it to try and find purchase in any other medium would be a shame. Thank God they figured out a way to make money at it. 

Grade: A-

The new cycle of “High Maintenance” can be purchased through Vimeo today. 

READ MORE: How ‘High Maintenance’ Became the Future of Indie TV

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