By Liz Shannon Miller
We ranked it:
“High Maintenance,” on the surface, is a bit easy to underestimate. The (primarily) New York-based web series, which premiered last year, chronicles the adventures of a bike-riding pot dealer shilling his wares, encountering new customers every episode — technically, a perfect set-up for stoner comedy.
But “High Maintenance” isn’t stoner comedy — instead, the anthology series (which runs on Vimeo) is a beautifully executed character study — one that packs surprising amounts of nuance into its approximately 5-to-15 minute episodes.
Each installment of the show, created by Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair and executive produced by Russell Gregory, focuses on a new resident of New York, and while oftentimes “High Maintenance” plays into hipster or hippie stereotypes, it’s rarely overdone. Instead, the stereotypes become jumping-off points for character development.
That character development doesn’t really extend to the unnamed Dealer (Ben Sinclair), however, who drifts in and out of these people’s lives — quietly at times and less quietly at others. As a unifying character, he might seem like a bit of a blank slate, but Sinclair’s performance, as well as the glimpses of oddness we get from his life, make the character extremely charming.
“High Maintenance” is currently in its fourth “cycle” of episodes, and not only are the production values solid, but the show’s gotten even more polished over the course of its run. The newest episode, “Matilda,” is partially shot in what looks like suburban Arizona, and in contrast to the show’s typical urban landscape, the cinematography beautifully captures the desert’s loneliness.
What’s funny about “High Maintenance” is that 10 years ago, there’s no way this show would be able to exist in any context. Not only were web distribution options for video extremely limited (no YouTube, no Vimeo, maybe some barely functional RealPlayer), but a show featuring a drug dealer protagonist would be seen as unacceptable content even by the most daring of cable networks.
This is, of course, an era before the rise of high-quality streaming media, and an era before the premieres of Showtime’s “Weeds” and AMC’s “Breaking Bad.” Today, “High Maintenance” wouldn’t be too out of place on a basic cable line-up — except for the anthology element.
Anthology series, which emphasize stand-alone characters over a central recurring cast, have been attempted over the last few decades but have failed to find audiences. But the way the format creates a stand-alone experience for each episode, while also providing a connective tissue binding each installment together into a narrative whole, actually makes it perfectly suited to the web series world.
And you get that from “High Maintenance,” which features a new story and a strong guest cast in each episode (Blichfeld is an Emmy-winning casting director). Every new episode maintains a consistent tone: Funny, human, and a little bittersweet. Every time, you know exactly what you’re getting from “High Maintenance.” But every time, you’re also getting something new.