High Maintenance: Season 1 (2016)
Unlike some of my other write ups, this isn’t a complete review – I’ve only seen two of the six episodes of High Maintenance and probably won’t watch any more in the near future. Instead, it’s more of a reflection upon what didn’t work for me about the show, which has become one of the most hyped underground comedies of the last twelve months. In no small part, that’s due to its origins as a web series, since, like Broad City before it, High Maintenance has made the jump to the big(ger) screen, with six half-hour episodes for HBO. In essence, it’s still driven by the same premise – a pot dealer, simply known as The Guy, played by co-creator Ben Sinclair, who moves through a diverse variety of clients in and around Brooklyn. As with the web series, the scenarios veer between slapstick comedy and dark pathos, making it difficult to discern whether we’re in the midst of a stoner reverie or a cautionary tale about drugs (or both at the same time). However, whereas each episode of the (variable-length) web series tended to revolve around a single transaction or group of transactions, here the thirty-minute format makes for a more diffuse structure, in which the drug deals form just one part of a wider and more ambient Brooklyn ensemble drama.
At its strongest, that produces a wonderful, druggy ambience in which everything feels just a little too close or a little too far away, as Sinclair and co-creator Kata Blichfeld dissolve any clearly delimited social, familial or communal spaces into a world in which all distinction between inside and outside, day and night, appears to have utterly vanished. In the original series, a great deal of the dramatic tension came from The Guy continually finding himself in other people’s apartments, but in the television series that’s a more general experience, with everyone seeming to inhabit vestibular and anonymous spaces for drug use, casual sex, spontaneous parties and other gestures of collective abandon. For that reason, social media plays more of a role as connective tissue this time around – a critical plot point in the second episode revolves around The Guy losing his Smart Phone – as digital flux seeps into druggy blur, and drugs themselves simply feel like a pretext or vehicle for fully experiencing the dispersed and ambient pleasure that the presence of social media affords.
The result is a profoundly inclusive promiscuity that seems anxious to reinvest the easy pleasures afforded by social media – drug access and casual sex in particular – with the eroticism of a pre-digital era, with the 60s forming a continual touchstone across the weave and warp of the narrative. Time and again, Blichfeld and Sinclair seems to be operating in a tactile medium more than a visual medium, opting fot blurred and fuzzy mise-en-scenes in which space is abstracted into a series of textures, surfaces and bodily sensations, as if to capture the dispersal and extension of our digital skin as a new and titillating kind of contact high. If social media is a form of a drug use, then drug use can presumably be restored as a social medium when paired with a digital milieu, and it’s that sense of the community-expanding potential of promiscuous pleasure that makes this feel so indebted to the hippie experiment, as well as so dedicated in its own hipster style and outlook.
Yet that hipster sensibility is also what held me at bay from the series as well. After several distinct waves of hipster-bashing, it’s hard to criticise a hipster aesthetic without sounding conservative or old-fashioned, and I’m the first to admit that a lot of my musical, cinematic and televisual taste is probably formed by hipster culture, even or especially when I’m not aware of it. At the same time, there is something about hipsterism that erases differences, even or especially as it purports to celebrate difference, if only because the classic hipster move is to treat all difference as a stylistic quotation waiting to be appropriated and streamlined, something that was beautifully interrogated in Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young. Admittedly, High Maintenance isn’t especially interested in the diversity of past styles – instead, it gathers an extraordinarily diverse range of drug users (straight people, queer people, white people, Indian people, African-American people, young people, middle-aged people, monogamous people, polyamorous people) only to frame them under the sign of hipster affectation and stylisation, rendering its very affirmation of difference strangely cloying and constrictive even or especially at its most inclusive.
Key to that sense of claustrophobia is the figure of The Guy himself, who responds to each encounter with a kind of sub-ironic deadpan that, to me, felt like the very worst version of the hipster’s unwillingness to take any kind of aesthetic or political risk for fear of being found out. For all his apparently easygoing dudespeak – he calls every single client “man” – there’s something profoundly paranoid and humourless about The Guy, something that speaks to the defensive anxiety about white masculinity that lies at the very heart of the hipster project. Encountering difference but only ever on his terms, he lends a humourlessness to the entire enterprise that – for me – creates quite a contradictory tone, while also ensuring that the few stabs at actual situational comedy feel completely unconvincing and entirely out of place as well. Of course, the dispersal and promiscuity of tone is part of the point, but with The Guy it seems to go beyond that, since his sub-bro register often seems to consciously resist comedy, insofar as comedy – laughing with people at the shared absurdity or strangeness of a situation – is often one of the best ways of puncturing your own pretensions in the face of difference.
In other words, while The Guy’s manner encourages us to see the comic or absurd side of every situation he encounters, we are never really permitted to view him – the hipster bro around which the entire Brooklynite world revolves – as an object of comedy in himself. Without that possibility, there is something strangely self-serious about High Maintenance, something desperate to court the champions of quality television, even if it means sacrificing the more irreverent overtones of the web series. In the process, characters who felt intriguing or moving or just plain entertaining in the web series become caricatures of themselves, even or especially as they are supposedly imbued with a new “depth.”
As a queer viewer, I found the gay subplot in the first episode particularly irritating. Of course, you can’t always expect to find yourself in onscreen gay characters and it’s not fair to expect every series to cater to your brand of queerness or difference. Similarly, it’s a bit unrealistic to expect any but the most radical texts to throw off stereotypes completely. Yet I still have a bit of a pet hate for series that purport to offer a complex depiction of LGBT stuff, only to fall back upon the most absurd and even homophobic caricatures. To me, Modern Family is the epitome of this kind of enterprise, presenting us with a pair of purportedly “realistic” gay characters who are utter stereotypes in all but one striking particular – they are not especially physically attractive. In a kind of underhandedly sadistic move, gay people are forced to watch yet another stereotypical onscreen depiction without even the solace of eye candy. More generally, the gay couple in Modern Family are one of the plot points at which the series most emphatically distances itself from the “traditional” or “conservative” sitcom, and it’s been my experience that this kind of “quality” gay character is often used as benchmark or litmus test for series that are anxious to insist upon their own “quality” credentials.
So it is with High Maintenance, which presents an utterly absurd gay coupling in its opening episode as a kind of index of its claims to realism. On the one hand, there is a campy, vampy, bitchy stereotype, played by Max Jenkins, a character who is not even permitted to enjoy his own serenades but instead imbued with a self-loathing and shame that the series foregrounds in quite a voyeuristic manner. Over the course of the episode, all the potentially buoyant or jubilant aspects of this character are shorn off as he is progressively fit into the role of the “tragic queen” whose codependence on his female friends prevents him from forming a relationship or real life of his own. Actually, this part of the plot is quite compelling, as the series takes us into the heart of what often feels like a weird hallucination of Will and Grace, in which Debra Messing’s character has been outed as the real antagonist (and, in a weird overlap, Jenkins also worked alongside Messing in The Mysteries of Laura). In a wonderful moment, his character rocks up to a drug rehabilitation clinic to give a moving speech about his addiction and dependence on “Crystal” – the name of his female companion and flatmate – only for the series to cut it short with an entrance from Crystal who promptly “outs” him as a fake user and then returns him to his previously tragic life. Whether or not he has another shot at escape is something I can only find out by watching the rest of the series, but this relegation of the main queer character back to the tragic fringes of the action left a bad taste in my mouth.
On the other hand, there is the second gay character, played by indie adult star Colby Keller. Keller’s character meets Jenkins’ character on Grindr, and the action immediately moves to a highly stylised depiction of the two of them doing it on a kitchen table, followed by an apparently styled-down, naturalistic depiction of the same act. The thing is, the two depictions look more or less the same and, combined with Keller’s presence and sway amongst the LGBT community, makes for an utterly fantasmatic and unrealistic sex sequence that merely compounds the blandishments of Jenkins’ tragic character with a scene straight out of softcore porn. Don’t get me wrong – the scene is hot – but it plays as if it is written by someone whose main knowledge of gay life or gay people is drawn from quasi-pornographic depictions in popular culture rather than the streetsmart experience that The Guy supposedly embodies. Far from being liberating, or from having any taste for the fallibilities and fragilities that make sex so personal, intimate and exciting, this balls-to-the-wall approach ends up concealing a quite conservative message about promiscuity and casual encounters that rubs up in quite awkward ways against the dispersed and promiscuous aesthetic of the series as a whole.
In other words, I felt that the queer characters alternated between being relegated to the tragic fringes of a purportedly fringeless world (or a world entirely constituted by fringes) and taking the moral burden for a promiscuity that was somehow available and acceptable for everyone else. While that may be just my own perspective and background speaking, it did contribute to my overwhelming sense that this is a series that is strangely precious and anxious about promiscuity when it is not contained and controlled – even if only passively and ironically – by the watchful eye of The Guy. Perhaps I’ll give it another shot, and perhaps I’ll find myself intrigued in time, but for the moment it’s contributed to my sense that webseries-turned-television series are not especially for me, especially when the original subject matter seemed so suited to the webseries format in the first place.
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