‘High Maintenance’: A Potent New Half-Hour

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large

Based on the popular web series of the same name about the travels and travails of a bicycling Brooklyn pot dealer, High Maintenance comes to HBO on Friday. It makes a smooth transition to pay cable, one that retains all of the original’s charm and distinctiveness while adding some bigger-name stars into the series’ heady mix.

The show stars its co-creator, Ben Sinclair, as a bearded fellow known only as The Guy, as he peddles his bike, peddling marijuana and the occasional mushroom to a wide variety of clients. The HBO series tends to break into two segments which often find a common link. In one episode, for example, a hardworking teenage girl (Shazi Raja) finds relief from scholarly pressure by getting high; the same half-hour also tells the story of a squabbling couple (played by Amy Ryan and Lee Tergesen) who have a pot-fueled open marriage. It’s only at the end of the episode that we learn these customers of The Guy live a floor apart in the same apartment building.

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The original webisodes were streamed on Vimeo (you can see the originals on HBO online and on demand) and were of varying length. The HBO adaptation, overseen by creators Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld, has a nice, sleek look to it; the duo have used their budget wisely to enhance the visuals while maintaining the funky tone and attitude that first attracted viewers to their web series. (One episode is told almost entirely from the point of view of a dog, and it’s not gimmicky for a second.)

The show features one of the most diverse casts on TV, and it easily surmounts the usual problem with what is essentially an anthology series, which is to tempt audiences to come back for more when they know they aren’t going to see the characters they may have liked a lot the week before. High Maintenance accomplishes this in two ways. Obviously, Sinclair’s Guy is in every episode, and he exudes a beguiling slacker shrewdness. Less obviously, Sinclair and Blichfeld have come up with compelling stories. The Guy’s customers don’t have to be high to make their tales interesting, and sometimes the drug involved is the least important aspect of the narrative. What counts is the clear-headed drama. And, sometimes, the fuzzy-headed comedy.

High Maintenance airs Fridays at 11 p.m. on HBO.