“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” So says the bard (Geddy Lee), but Friday’s series premiere of the new HBO series High Maintenance added a new spin to it. We’re all pretty aware that New York, the home of 30 Law and Order spinoffs, is a city of infinite stories. We read and share Humans of New York, a blog that has been trafficking in true resident stories for years, and we’re always surprised at the perspectives they uncover.
But for all the stories that this city gives us, there is ever-present the lesson in humility that we’re not as quick to take in, no matter how often it burns us: everyone is playing a part, and things are rarely what they seem. And this series premiere, following the travels of a pot dealer as he delivers to his clientele, is quick to teach us that lesson right from the start.
Newcomers to High Maintenance may have found the first episode, “Meth(od)”, a little confusing in its structure and arc, so here’s a quick primer. High Maintenance started out as a webseries before it was developed by HBO. The web series, a total of 19 episodes, was made of vignettes focusing on the varied clients of a pot dealer, just known as The Guy (co-creator/director Ben Sinclair).
As opposed to other series, High Maintenance mostly featured a distinct decentralization of its star, instead using The Guy as a window to and the connective tissue between several disconnected or coincidentally connected stories.
Episode 1 of the HBO series debuted on Friday, but the series has made the transition to premium cable by not tampering with the formula, and instead fusing two seemingly disparate vignettes into one 30-minute episode. The result is challenging, and sort of defies the narrative nature that recaps usually take. We’re not going to breathlessly wait for The Guy to meet A Girl and go through the ups-and-downs of a dramatized relationship, and he’s almost definitely not going to trade in his bicycle and helmet for a dragon. Instead, we’re left with ponderous stories that don’t always tie up very neatly, and we can only hope to get a sense of the greater intention of the creators.
From the outset, the episode starts off with what’s by now a clichéd scene told from literally every perspective (we saw it in FX’s Atlanta last week too): the tense drug deal. The Guy shows up to an apartment where a Vin Diesel doppelgänger (Dieselgänger, and yes, that should be a term we use more widely and often) is in the middle of an argument with his girlfriend, while his bro silently watches from the couch. It’s the typical meathead argument: he’s insanely territorial and makes their nights out clubbing miserable. She storms out, and The Guy shows up just in time to deal with the aftermath. The Dieselgänger, Johnny, is clearly agitated and constantly fucks with The Guy in that typical Alpha Dog bully way that the meeker members of the male race are way too acquainted with: “Isn’t my girlfriend hot? Don’t fucking touch her! I’m just fucking with you!” Cool, cool, this isn’t stressful for us at all.
Whether it’s about his girlfriend, or showing off a “samurai sword forged at the base of Mount Fuji” (this is definitely the description Johnny read from the website where he bought it), or trying to give business advice and then offering to partner up with The Guy, our uneasiness as onlookers is the kind of anxiety and paranoia that seems part and parcel with getting high. We just want The Guy to get his money and get the fuck out, and things keep getting in the way via Johnny’s ADHD impromptu pull ups, offering to pay in a jar of change, or brandishing his katana, and all the while we’re trying to figure out that guy on the couch, why he has only said one word, and what the fuck the endgame is here.
The Guy gets so weirded out that he grabs the jar of change in lieu of actual payment and leaves. When Johnny returns from a phone call with his girlfriend continuing their argument, he sees that he and his friend are now alone in the apartment, and they both drop their American accents for their native British accents. The quiet friend then gives Johnny notes on his performance. The “sketchy drug deal” scene has turned out to be just that — actors rehearsing a role — and it’s a nice beginning for a show that people might otherwise think is going to write itself, given our sometimes limited imagination about what happens in drug deals.
The next vignette features two characters fans of the webseries should be familiar with, The Assholes, aka Max (Max Jenkins) and Lainey (Heléne Yorke). If you haven’t seen the earlier episodes, which are all available on HBO’s on-demand services, you really should. Unlike Broad City, another webseries that made the jump to television, High Maintenance builds on its webisodes instead of rewriting or revisiting those themes in the HBO format. Max and Lainey come from the episode “Olivia,” and it gives a lot of background to Max’s character in particular. When the Guy realizes that it’s Max who has found his lost phone, he remarks that he knows (and hates) the guy, and you see in the webisode why Max is labeled in his phone as “Asshole.” It’s not necessary for enjoying this particular vignette, which has a sadness to it by the end that feels like Misery, if it took place over a lifetime, but it shades in a lot of areas, and honestly it’s fun to keep coming back to such awful characters.
When we first meet Max and Lainey, they’re enveloped in a world of loathing. They hate everyone they’re hanging out with, but also themselves and each other. It’s only through a random sex app triste that Max meets Sebastian, and as he’s getting pounded against the dining room table he suddenly falls in love …with Sebastian’s life. Sebastian lives in a gorgeous, tasteful apartment, and Max doesn’t want to leave it and vanish back into anonymity and his social circle of gnashing teeth. When Max learns Sebastian is in recovery, he decides to pretend he, too, is a meth addict, and enters the world of recovering gay men, where he finds all of the things that his relationship with Lainey is lacking.
Everyone is supportive while Lainey tears everything down, they fight to pick up the check while Lainey leans on Max for money that she has no intention of ever paying back. It’s the action that lets us know Max isn’t happy with his life to this point, that he wants out of his “gay marriage” to Lainey, or at least that he thinks he can have this other group in addition to Lainey. It all culminates in Max finally sharing in group about his ”addiction” to “crystal.” He gives a veiled monologue about his addiction before it devolves into a list of grievances against Lainey. Sure, he’s not an actual drug addict, but he does have a destructive relationship in his life that he is trying to break away from, and this group has helped him.
When Lainey appears and outs Max as a phony, he descends into a drug-fueled two-day rager out of sadness and mortification, and winds up actually doing crystal meth so he will no longer be a fraud to Sebastian and the group. He tweaks to the point of confrontation with Lainey, who breaks his leg in anger, and the episode ends with a return to “normal.” Max is infirmed, stuck in a cast on the couch with Lainey, who is happy to feed him her own prescription of Percocet and watch him transform back into his old self.
Here we see a different play on the idea of acting, or the reasons why people lie to us. In Johnny’s segment, he inhabited the performance of a tough guy to become a better actor. Max played a part to gain entry into a new world, and to leave behind his old world. And he’s so desperate to be a part of this world that’s he willing to throw himself into the part, a play on the title of the episode, “Meth(od).”
Johnny and Max are both method acting in very different ways, though there’s more sincerity in Max’s actions. He’s a fraud out of necessity, because he doesn’t think this new, kinder group of men would accept them if they knew who he really was. When the Guy makes his appearance into this story, we see him in a theater, the temporary home of his friend Chad (another webseries regular worth seeing just to understand how derogatory the term “Chad” is in this episode). Chad is also playing a part, bragging about his new home and how great it is, but for all his bravado in this new lifestyle, he’d prefer to shower in a house than at the nearby gym.
“Meth(od)” gives us these three characters at various points in their lives, each defrauding people around them to various degrees of success. But the episode perpetuates these lies until the truth beneath them is revealed. This is a shift from something like Humans of New York. Like The Guy, we’re meeting these strangers and hoping to learn about their lives, but these are not lives that are open to our viewing. The strangers have their own desires for how they’re perceived, regardless of what we want them to tell us. And by visiting them on their own terms, we may learn some truths, but a lot of it could just be shwag.
For more High Maintenance maintenance, follow Eric: @PrimeSilver.