In a recent NY Times feature on the Miracle On The Hudson movie Sully, an old cliche made a very expected appearance: "The supervising location manager, Patrick Mignano, explained that New York is a character in the film along with the pilot." From the work of Woody Allen to Dog Day Afternoon to The Devil Wears Prada, from Seinfeld to Law & Order to little-seen Liam Neeson thriller Run All Night, there is a seemingly endless parade of movies and TV shows that have aimed to capture the authenticity of life around NYC. With only a few exceptions, they mostly fall far short of those goals, whether through shoddy location shooting, basic subway errors, or a fundamental misunderstanding of how New Yorkers live.
It is one of many things that makes High Maintenance, whose new season premieres on HBO this Friday, so remarkable. More than any other modern TV show, it rings true to a myriad of NYC experiences without falling into pretentiousness. The show is able to capture the absurd magnetism that keeps us all tethered to the NYC grind, without whitewashing the mundane struggles, the exuberant hustles, and the narcissistic shittiness that comes hand-in-hand with everyday life here. With six new episodes set for their first HBO season, it's not only the best show about NYC—it's the most humane fictional show on television.
In case you're not familiar with the web phenomenon, the first 19 episodes—all of which initially premiered on Vimeo between 2012 and 2015 in batches of three or four—are available to stream now on HBO Go. Each one of those episodes (which run anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes) serves as a self-contained short story that parodies rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn with a subtle touch.
It's often called a "stoner comedy," which is as true as it is reductive—sure, there's a lot of casual pot use, and there is an emphasis placed on normalizing marijuana use (and taking a more careful look at the ways and reasons people use it). But High Maintenance cuts through the stereotypes to becomes more like Winesburg Ohio via Louie, a series of inter-connected stories about disparate-but-sympathetic New Yorkers struggling to make sense of the modern world. Most of the time, their only direct connections are the city they live in, and the bearded, zen-like pot dealer (aka "The Guy") played by co-creator Ben Sinclair.
You wouldn't necessarily know how great High Maintenance would become from the first few episodes, which while funny (esp "Jamie"), all tended to hinge on one big punchline (like "Heidi," a takeoff on the Hipster Grifter). But by the second round of episodes, it seemed as though the show was already pushing what it could do and be, mixing incredibly sad character studies ("Helen") with true-to-life Airbnb vignettes ("Trixie").
— High Maintenance (@HMwebseries) September 1, 2016
If you just want to sample a few episodes to dip your toe in, I'd highly recommend checking out "Jonathan" (in which Hannibal Burress deals with a traumatic experience), "Sufjan" (all about the stress of inter-borough moving), "Matilda" (in which The Guy's niece comes to visit), "Qasim" (the strangest episode, all about a creepy cult), "Genghis" (a tough look at trying to break into the NYC school system), and my three personal favorites, "Brad Pitts," "Ruth" and "Rachel" (which all embrace hopefulness in ways that are unexpected and wonderful).
There are fantastic performances from the likes of Burress, Orange Is The New Black's Yael Stone, Amy Ryan, and Downton Abbey's Dan Stevens (also co-creator Katja Blichfeld, who plays Stevens' wife in a pair of episodes), as well as a rotating cast of Don't-I-Recognize-You-From-Somewhere? actors who increasingly reappear as the show continues expanding (Wall Street Journal has some spoiler-lite interviews with a few of these familiar faces). Even with that continuity—and many of those older characters pop up in surprising ways in the new episodes—the references and callbacks are more like treats for dedicated fans rather than impediments for new ones.
There is one big change with the new HBO episodes: each individual episode now stretches to a full half-hour, which means there are often two conceptually-related (but not necessarily story-related) threads we follow. Thankfully, the spirit of the web series is not dulled or stretched out by this; if anything, the show becomes even more curious about the lives of the various New Yorkers it glances at, giving as much attention to the immigrant couple collecting cans as the bourgeois couple arguing in Park Slope.
One episode ("Selfie") pairs a grim look at alienation and modern technology with a delightfully meta parody of the show (watch out for the Girls cameo). In another ("Museebat"), a Muslim teen crosses paths with her sexually (and chemically) liberated neighbors. There is an episode ("Ex") that gives a tantalizing glimpse at The Guy's life outside dealing. And my favorite of the new batch is a remarkable one ("Grandpa") that not only shows the city from the perspective of a dog, but actually considers the dog's inner life as seriously as any other human character.
The extended format and HBO backing also allows for more experimentation with the storytelling. As Blichfeld told the Times, that meant reaching for the high standards of their new network while remaining “as small as they would let us be." There is more self-consciousness and time to explore the criticisms the show has received regarding race and class privilege.
Despite the extra ambition and resources, this is still a show that finds time to meander in the margins. It's a portrait of NYC that is successful because it is familiar without being rote, as if you set up a camera in your own cramped apartment then passed it to your neighbor.