For four years and 19 episodes, Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair’s online series of interconnected vignettes has been an underground hit. Friday’s late-night premiere of the first of six all-new “High Maintenance” episodes serves as a smart introduction to the themes and very particular artistry of the show, setting the bar high while promising the rich stories to come.
“Meth(od)” comprises, like most of the series’ entries, a main story preceded by a shorter, more conceptual portrait of one of “The Guy’s” marijuana-buying, New York City clients. Any convert of the show is an evangelist, so it should be said upfront: Most weed things are not funny, or even that interesting, by their very nature. But as much trepidation as the concept may give, take comfort in the fact that “Maintenance” is as much about pot culture as “Girls” is about frozen yogurt: It’s freely available, it’s a part of life for a lot of us, and there’s nothing inherently exciting about it.
While the HBO episodes are standard length, a change from the highly variable format of previous episodes, it is for the most part a creative blessing, and the only noticeable change. While a couple of episodes do show a bit of padding, or fatigue, it’s hard to imagine a series like this (vide wide swathes of the brilliant “Master of None”) about which we couldn’t say the same — and the same goes double for the incredible list of cameos throughout the season: Lee Tergesen, Amy Ryan, Bridget Moloney, Yael Stone, Dan Stevens, Hannibal Burress and rising star Michael Cyril Creighton will all appear, most in reprise roles.
The prologue — an intentionally tedious, mildly upsetting interaction with an aggressively selfish bodybuilder and his silent compatriot — is a strong introduction to the keenly observed, often awkward situations that befall our Nick Caraway-esque cipher of a protagonist (creator Ben Sinclair), it’s also an introduction to the show’s more glaringly problematic themes: A twist’s last-second attempt to make the show hipper than itself comes off as uncomfortably as, for example, the high-minded rhetoric of “You’re the Worst’s” Sam Dresden (Brandon Mychal Smith): A young, Kanye-esque rapper from whom proper grammar and/or an apparently unlikely love of high art and cinema are the entire punchline.
It’s something the show continues to wrestle with, in this new incarnation: A sharp focus on white, upper-middle class men’s lives and bodies is part of the overarching narrative, while leaving minorities and women in their wake. Nagging girlfriends, antagonistic people of color, and blow-your-mind reversals — that all seem to rest on blowing up ugly assumptions the show presumes we’re all bringing to the table — are all part of the mix.
It’s a small world, after all, and with so many characters straying into one another’s lives, it actually adds a healthy vérité — even when part of that truth is the show’s own defensiveness about its privilege. In this first week’s case, however, that minor snag is more than earned by the main event: While the episode’s title applies to both chapters, it’s the larger story that makes us promises about the season as a whole.
Without spoiling too much of the wild, anarchic ride of “Meth (od),” which focuses on several complicated days in the life of a white Brooklyn gay dude, we can say that it’s a good representation of the project as a whole: The sex is neither realistic nor particularly titillating, the darkness hits as suddenly as it recedes — in sharper contrast, and with more revolutions than usual — and the points it has to make are varied and wise.
Uncomfortably so: The stressed, codependent relationship between trainwrecks Max (Max Jenkins) and roommate Lainey (Heléne Yorke) treads into unattractive ground we’ve not seen on television before, but certainly recognize from life: The way homophobia and misogyny plays out sub-rosa between certain gay guy/straight girl couples, under cover of tolerance and good-natured ribbing — there’s a reason the common vernacular for this relationship combines hateful slurs — has never been portrayed this realistically, nor this toxically.
The inflection point comes, via Grindr, in the form of good-natured Sebastian (played by the infinitely appealing porn star/intellectual Colby Keller), a rando who pulls Max away from his disordered home life into a wonderland of maturity, responsibility and radical honesty. In one of the series’ best scenes to date, and certainly true to life, a high aerobic session of anonymous sex turns itself, immediately after, into a romantic meet-cute — and the battle for Max’s soul begins, with combatant Lainey none the wiser.
While “The Guy” is never an obtrusive aspect of the stories we get to watch – in fact, when the camera turns itself on him directly, the results are always shocking and rarely pleasant, despite his overwhelming natural charm and presence — his part in this episode is, wisely, reduced to slapstick: A postscript tangent to a life going down in flames, no more the cause of the distress than the weed he sells would be.
Themes of marriage and petty romantic crisis predominate this season, and Lainey’s nastiness (and tenderness) give a hint of what’s to come. But the show is so smart, and visually stunning, and so concerned with details and moments, that one never feels beat over the head by its hiccups and descent into trope. More often than not, even this is a gloss on what seems like a more powerful motivating force for the short stories the series tells:
If there is a single theme here, across the season and the series, it seems to be about the acts we’ve agreed to put on, the cliches we have agreed to be — like Max, and like Lainey; like the apparent goon that starts the episode — and how our method acting becomes so polished and so perfect that we forget ourselves entirely.
Until the day The Guy comes along. Which also, and luckily for everyone watching, is usually the day we remember something — some clue, some memory, some fault or crack that lets the light in — about who we were originally intended to be.
“High Maintenance” premieres the first of six new episodes Friday (Sept 16) at 11:00 ET/PT, on HBO. The previous web episodes are available at HBO GO, HBO NOW and HBO On Demand, and airing on HBO Comedy.