Back in HBO’s heyday, “Sex and the City” defined a particular highly-branded image of New York City: Cocktail bars with velvet ropes serving Cosmopolitans to sexually-liberated thirtysomething women. New York was Carrie Bradshaw’s true first love, and it was the fifth member of the gang, as much a part of the show as Mr. Big or Manolo Blahniks. While acknowledging all of its humor and heart, the world of “Sex and the City” was moneyed, white, and apolitical. More than 20 years later, HBO is airing a very different little show, one that is just as in love with the unique texture of New York City while reflecting the breadth of characters that make it so beautiful.
In its fourth season, “High Maintenance” is still riding high. While certain vignettes will always resonate more than others, early episodes of Season 4 prove that creators Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld still have plenty of stories to tell — some of them downright transcendent. While last season saw Sinclair’s The Guy exploring his desires more than any previous seasons had, Season 4 (at least the first two episodes provided to critics) returns him to the periphery, where he was during the show’s early web series days.
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The opening scenes show The Guy shoveling mulch at a community garden, setting up a ripe compost motif. Compost, and its myriad metaphors therein, becomes the theme for a fictional episode of “This American Life,” presided over by none other than Ira Glass in a guest appearance. When a hungry radio reporter’s (Natalie Woolams-Torres) first story derails, she decides to pitch an impromptu fight with her boyfriend (Marcus Raye Perez) instead. Seeing two fine and sexy bigger folks sharing intimacy and tenderness, not to mention a funny shower and sex scene, is a refreshing reprieve from typical Hollywood couplings.
Following their storyline is a singing telegram artist, played by the stand-up comedian and singer Larry Owens (“A Strange Loop”). His travails throughout the city as he shoves balloons into taxis and changes costumes in deserted stairwells captures the hustle and bustle of New York’s multi-talented hoofers.
But the crowning achievement, at least so far, is a storyline following an on-set intimacy coordinator. Played by the luminous Abigail Bengson, a composer and playwright who has toured with tUnE-yArDs, Kym is both tender and thorough, the exact kind of open-hearted soul with excellent boundaries one would want as an intimacy coordinator. She looks on with hilarious layers of concern and love as she takes her charges — awkward and fumbling and a little inappropriately flirtatious — through their choreography.
This is fruitful territory for HBO, which was one of the first networks to formalize hiring intimacy coordinators as a regular practice. (This was after allegations of sexual misconduct against James Franco made it a necessity on his show “The Deuce.”) It’s fascinating to see an insider perspective — presumably Kim is based on the show’s own intimacy coordinator — on what is a certainly an opaque process to the general public.
But even Kym’s boundaries are challenged by a budding romance with an asexual magician (charming repeat-player Avery Monsen). “High Maintenance” has always found magic in the intricacies and complexities of modern life, and it’s hard to think of a more perfect scenario than an intimacy coordinator navigating her own complex dance. Written by the ever-brilliant Isaac Oliver, who has been a writer on the show since 2018, “Trick” is certain to be a standout episode in a very promising season.
There are as many fascinating New York stories as there are fascinating New Yorkers, and “High Maintenance” continues to mine the depths for the most luminous ones.
“High Maintenance” Season 4 premieres on HBO on Friday, January 7 at 11 p.m. Eastern.
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