The HIGHly Bearable MAINTENANCE of Being

Previous defenders of High Maintenance – one of HBO’s newest television series – have made sure to classify it as neither a show about marijuana nor a marijuana show; instead, they’ve tried at every juncture to clarify that though the main character is a drug dealer, he and his demonic green stuff is only tangentially related to the far more dignified, existential focus of creators Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair (who also plays the character of the dealer, named simply “The Guy”). Though that assertion may sound valid after a peripheral examination of the pilot, such an archaic separation between the bafflingly still illicit drug and the philosophic, thematic underpinnings of the series fails to convey the depth of thoughts that the husband-and-wife team of Blichfeld and Sinclair are trying to communicate regarding the relationship between marijuana and the everyday angst of everyday people simply trying to get through their everyday lives with their sanity intact…or rather, highly maintained. High Maintenance is very much a marijuana show about marijuana, but like all superb art, the series simply uses its misunderstood subject as a jumping off point to explore the common struggles of being in the 21st century. Through that commonality of shared experience, we – smokers and non-smokers alike – should find comfort in knowing that we can rely on the lives of others to help us through our own, which is one of the foundational tenets of all great art. And High Maintenance, not so much despite of but rather because of its seemingly quotidian subject matter, is great art.

Does all of that sound like a lot for a ‘stoner comedy’ whose simple summary reads, “A nameless cannabis delivery guy delivers his much-needed medication to stressed-out New Yorkers?” If so, you’re succumbing to society’s complete misrepresentation of marijuana as a justifiable taboo, a perception that’s only been perpetuated by its piss-poor depictions in popular culture. As much as I love them, movies like Pineapple Express and Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle and That ‘70s Show and Half-Baked and Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Cheech & Chong and basically almost every high school and college flick ever put to celluloid have presented ‘stoners’ – a still derogatory term for those who like to regularly smoke the herb – as giggling, bumbling idiots who do nothing all day but, well, smoke the herb. Very few serious artistic ventures have featured weed or those who enjoy it because most artists are aware that a vast majority of the population cannot view such stoners as anything more than their previous childish portrayals. Yet these artistic representations are harmless compared to how many view the real-life effects of the substance; I’ve encountered a plethora of top-shelf news reporters and even appointed politicians speculate that the recent violence between the police and African American communities is a result of the influence of weed on the latter.

I’m not going to dig into the absurdity of this claim, nor the sheer idiocy of alcohol – a far more dangerous drug in regards to how it can affect one’s behavior – being legal while weed isn’t, nor even the easily comprehensible history of how marijuana garnered its unfair reputation, mostly because High Maintenance does not directly address these issues. If it had, the series would indeed be nothing more than a marijuana show about marijuana, failing to speak to anyone not interested in the subject. Instead, Blichfeld and Sinclair consciously thwart the expectations that have been established not only by previous depictions of and false beliefs held regarding weed culture but by their very own synopsis – they know that the best way to refute common misconceptions about weed is not by directly addressing them but rather by showing their viewers how the drug really operates in its users’ daily lives.

High Maintenance began its life as a web series on Vimeo back in 2012. Ultimately, Blichfeld and Sinclair produced 19 different 10-20 minute episodes, each of which served as a brief snapshot of the life of one of the people to whom the Guy delivers weed in New York City. HBO wisely snatched up the two creators to start writing new episodes for them, no doubt partially because they knew that millennials – and more liberal older folk – would be smitten with the idea of a TV series that allowed its viewers each week to follow the same friendly neighborhood drug dealer into the home and life of a different character wanting to get their fix. Stoner hilarity would undoubtedly ensure in these drug-filled vignettes starring the type of kooky substance abusers we’ve all become accustomed to, right?!

The first half of the pilot episode of the HBO series intentionally conforms to these expectations, with The Guy receiving a call and then going to the expectedly shabby apartment of two guys who perfectly fit the visible bill of weed smokers. Both men – clearly not white – come across like the type of conventional ‘thugs’ that ‘all lives matter’ proponents would cite as those responsible for many of the problems in America today. At first, the episode feels so familiar that it almost seems to write itself: The Guy enters the apartment, they smoke together, have a laugh, and then the audience starts having a laugh at The Guy’s expense as the two buyers stereotypically intimidate and distract their way out of having to pay for The Guy’s services.

And yet, one moment foreshadows what distinguishes High Maintenance from almost all previous depictions of weed users: the behavior of the men is exactly the same before AND after they smoke. Less realistic portrayals would have turned them into relentlessly goofy, food-craving, music-obsessed, hallucinating stoners as soon as they ingested any hint of smoke into their lungs. But here, they continue their conversations as if absolutely nothing changes from getting high. Those who have only smoked a few times[1] may disagree with this experience, but experienced smokers like these characters know that weed often simply provides a different – no better, no worse – internal perspective on their daily lives, with none of the mindless external hysterics usually associated with the drug.

The episode deftly conveys this point at the very end of this scene. The Guy finally leaves the apartment after deciding that he’s wasted enough time trying to get his rightfully owed money, at which point the ‘thugs’ immediately drop their characters…literally. They’re actually two British thespians – an actor and his dialect coach, specifically – testing out the authenticity of his performance for an upcoming role of a stereotypical ‘thug’ to see if they can fool an American who must deal with such types all the time into believing it. The main purpose behind calling The Guy wasn’t to pick up and subsequently smoke weed; the drug simply helped them deal with what they really wanted, namely to improve their craft in the presence of a test audience.

Yet, marijuana still plays an integral part in this transaction, for they very easily could’ve just called a pizza delivery guy instead. It’s no coincidence that The Guy’s first two customers on the HBO series were actors; artists and weed have always been a perfect match because art and drugs both attempt to alter perception and perspective. These actors clearly find it easier to adopt the persona of another person when high, which helps facilitate getting outside of your own mind and temporarily occupying someone else’s by seeing the world differently through their eyes. Similarly, good artists through their work try to change how their audiences see the world around them. The audiences of High Maintenance are only able to see the true identities of these two characters simply because of the customary omniscient perspective provided by art, an opportunity not afforded to The Guy because he cannot see past the realistic confines of his own fictional reality. By ending this first segment here, Blichfeld and Sinclair brilliantly connect the similar ways that drugs and art expand our conceptions of the reality around us. Reality itself is not a permanent construct but rather an infinitely fluid collection of each individual’s constantly changing subjective perception of it.

The second half of the pilot episode really drives this point home, especially when analyzed in relation to the second set of characters’ initial appearance in the original web series. Its fifth episode[2] – titled “Olivia” – chronicles the endlessly obnoxious lives of Lainey and Max, a woman and her gay male best friend who are two vain high society-wannabe in their 30s spending their days basically judgmentally shitting on everyone and everything around them a million words per minute in that classic millennial holier-than-thou fashion. The web episode mostly serves as a comedic 10-minute slice of their lives whose humor largely derives from their ridiculous jargon, and it ends with them being blacklisted by The Guy because they steal from him.

As such, it was rather surprising to see Lainey and Max return in the HBO pilot, but thwarting expectations – particularly those surrounding marijuana – is basically the modus operandi of High Maintenance. Instead of structuring the second half of the episode in the same style as the first by following The Guy enter another abode to make another entertaining delivery, he only briefly appears in this segment. Instead, much of it focuses solely on Max’s life, specifically how he feels trapped in his exhaustingly all-consuming relationship with his negative Nancy roommate whose behavior increasingly and contagiously infects every aspect of his being – even his own identity – until she basically becomes his entire life. After walking two moons in his moccasins by watching the pilot, the scorn that audiences felt for him in the web series becomes empathetic pity, a weed-like alteration of our perception of him as a character that only art can so easily provide.

Yet this segment also makes a much larger statement regarding the role that drugs can play in our lives. Max copes with his borderline abusive relationship by visiting support group meetings for recovering meth addicts. Even though he’s never actually taken meth, he relates to everyone’s stories about being addicted to an entity in your life that seems to bring superficial, temporary enjoyment but really ends in nothing but sustained misery, which reminds him of his relationship with his roommate. He’s of course ostracized as soon as the group finds out he’s been lying this whole time, and when he fails to get in touch with The Guy to pick up some much-needed calming weed, he instead decides to take meth.

This series of events should be understood on two levels. First, rather superficially: it attempts to show the vast difference between the effects of a real drug – meth – and weed. Secondly, and much more importantly: this segment demonstrates people’s overwhelming disability to view drugs as anything but that: drugs. Instead of the group forgiving Max for lying in the name of understanding his very apt likening between their destructive addiction to meth and his destructive addiction to his roommate, they simply write him off out of hand. He’s not a recovering drug addict, thus he doesn’t belong. In their opinions, you’re either talking about a drug or you’re not – they don’t see how a drug can be seen as anything but a drug, and similarly a non-drug cannot be seen as a drug. Their reaction comes across like a pre-emptive response on Blichfeld and Sinclair’s parts to their expectation that a lot of people would inevitably understand High Maintenance as nothing more than that: a show for and about those who get high.

They purposefully leave behind The Guy and his weed in this segment to make it clear that High Maintenance is about much more than just drugs. The elements that make High Maintenance High Maintenance are just as prevalent in this segment as any other, regardless of the lack of The Guy’s presence. At its core, the series is a chronicle of various people whose problem is not that they smoke weed, but rather they smoke weed to cope with their universally-relatable problems. Blichfeld and Sinclair hope to expand the minds of their audiences – much like weed most probably does for them – to understand that what connects these people is not their drug-infused lifestyle, but rather their problem-laden lifestyles with which weed happens to help them. The form of lifestyle maintenance that they’ve chosen is to get high, but that’s the same as choosing shopping, or playing sports, or eating, or any other coping mechanism. All lives need high maintenance – most figuratively, some literally.

The title of the pilot – “Meth(od)” – captures this role that drugs play both in the series and life in general. The word ‘meth’ immediately jumps out, symbolizing Blichfeld and Sinclair’s awareness that most will initially view the show as about nothing more than drugs, drugs, drugs. But once you take in the whole title – symbolically, the whole of their art – a discerning viewer will hopefully come to understand that these drugs, drugs, drugs are just a small portion of what’s predominantly on their minds: the methods people use to cope with the everyday problems that affect most of our lives.

The second episode of the HBO series seamlessly further develops these ideas and themes introduced in the pilot. The first half concerns an American Muslim college student who smokes weed as a way to forsake the stringent lifestyle demands thrust on her by her conservative, traditional family, and the latter half focuses on one member in a group of weed-smoking swingers who has started to feel the negative ramifications of his far too open and liberal lifestyle; he ultimately wants to re-connect with his wife in a proverbial one-on-one smoke session versus always having to include the likes of The Guy, who his wife happened to invite to his 50th birthday smoke-and-sex party.

Though these two characters are superficially connected both in their proximity as neighbors and in their interactions with The Guy, their shared tendency to smoke weed is not the most important tie that binds them; this is conveyed by the episode ending with the student’s family confronting the swingers for selling their daughter weed, to which the latter swiftly brushes them away by literally slamming the door in their faces and matter-of-factly declaring, “weed isn’t a drug.” Once again, this feels like a message to everyone in the audience who can’t see these characters as anything more than drug users. Weed may be the obvious connector, but it’s not what truly unites them. Rather, they’re both living diametrically oppositional lifestyles whose problems lie in the extremities forced upon them by the other people in their lives; the student needs to open up her life despite her family’s influence, and the man needs to close his despite his wife and friends’ influence. Weed is simply a symbol of what they’re really coping with, and what they actually need is to moderate their lives towards their neighbor’s direction.

And this is where the HBO episodes exceed the achievements of its web predecessors. The latter predominantly focus on making comedic observations that all together present different existential ways of being. However, the HBO series’ elongated length allows Blichfeld and Sinclair to draw comparisons between, and thereby ultimately unite their characters’ differentiated existentialism by exploring their shared dramatic underpinnings. Great art reveals for its audiences through fictional representations on screen the shared patterns connecting all of our lives in reality. By presenting these connective patterns to us, we will hopefully become more equipped to look past the differences that make us feel such deep, depressing alienation – a constant of the New Yorkers in the series – and instead see the guiding light that can be provided by noting what we share even with the strangers around us, all of whom can help us highly maintain our sanity. We should all derive comfort in the fact that we’re not alone in our problems, and as such, aid may only be an apartment away, and it can come in a .

Perhaps it’s not much to comfort audiences in such a way, but in the words of the reluctant barber in the very first scene of the pilot who wants to give The Guy a stunning new look but doesn’t have enough hair to work with: “I’m a barber; not a magician…but I do what I can.” Blichfeld and Sinclair may not be magicians or even gods over anything except their own fictional universe – they can’t just will their audiences to see weed and the world as they do. But by lording over their fiction and manipulating it to accurately reflect reality as they see it, they’re doing what they can for their audiences.

They understand that the best way to change people’s perception of marijuana is not by directly addressing all of their false preconceptions; rather, they only need to show that those who smoke suffer from the same problems as those who don’t – they just cope with those problems in different ways. As such, this is not a show just about weed; this is a show about life, through the shared lens of those who indulge in a “vice” to advise them on how to, well, be. Is it a comedy or a drama? It’s exactly what life is for all of us: an ever changing combination of the two, flawlessly acted in a sufficiently realistic manner by the uniformly superb ensemble. Those who can’t overcome their own preconceived notions about weed to be able to see themselves in these characters simply cannot get out of their own heads. Perhaps they need the help of a certain drug to expand their minds, which is the note that the pilot ends on:

Earlier in the episode, The Guy engages in a casual dispute with a random woman who complains about him having the disrespectful gall to park his bike next to a street post under which resides a memorial to a biker who lost his life on that same spot, even though it’s the only place to lock up a bike anywhere in sight. Though he disagrees with her opinion, their conversation seems to somewhat convince him, for he subsequently goes off to find another parking spot. The credits roll later in the episode over a different angle of this very same scene, but now we see – but do not hear – a quasi-hallucinogenic apparition of the deceased biker’s ghost aggressively gesticulating at The Guy to get the heck out of his final resting place. It’s the type of perspective that drugs, or art, or anything that allows us to see the world in a different way – even merely being open to a conversation with a random old lady on the street – provides.

As always in life, there’s more substance to this substance than initially meets the eye, and thankfully Katja Blichfeld, Ben Sinclair, their characters, and a bit of weed are here to make us see our lives and the world in slightly different ways, if we’re willing to listen. It may not be much, but they’re doing what they can, and we’ll all be better off if they maintain this high for the foreseeable future…

FOOTNOTES

[1] Many of whom probably have an overblown horror story about weed. As with everything in life, it takes getting used to – just because someone crashes their bicycle in their first week of riding doesn’t mean they should never try again. Everything has a learning curve, and weed should not be judged any differently.

[2] All of which can currently be streamed on HBO GO/NOW.

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