‘High Maintenance’ and the Art of the Audience Surrogate

highmaintenanceWith the release of three new episodes last week, High Maintenance went from the one web series you need to be watching to the one web series you still need to be watching. Long-trumpeted by critics of both traditional and new media as the pinnacle of what creators are accomplishing online, High Maintenance returned with three new episodes fully-financed by Vimeo and released under their new original content outfit, Vimeo On Demand.

And what they released was more of the same: character-driven, New York-quirky, sad/funny, length-agnostic short films drawn together by their cross-river view of Manhattan and “The Guy”, co-creator Ben Sinclair’s drug dealing vagabond who waltzes in and out of each episode at no regularly scheduled interval. Not that this is an issue, High Maintenance remains massively true to its form intended by Sinclair and his wife/co-creator Katja Blichfeld. The two, now famously, shirked a television deal in order to keep the same pace of production and creative control over their product.

The new episodes, which can be watched totally cold without an issue but does feature a few characters seen in previous episodes, tend more towards to melancholy than the comedic. High Maintenance is funny in the way life is funny; the characters are quiet, it is not filled with bits or jokes, and it is often deeply sad or affecting in the moment but funny with any perspective or outsider-empathy. Sinclair and Blichfeld are adept at mixing perspective in their direction so the viewer can experience both the inner anxieties and the outer peculiarities of the featured characters.

One of the tools Sinclair and Blichfeld employ most confidently is their de facto lead character, The Guy. The Guy serves as a constant in which the variable character perspectives can interact with or show their true selves. What’s great and so useful about The Guy is that he gets along with everyone, or if he doesn’t there is a clear and constructive character beat that shows why (as is the case in the episode “OLIVIA,” where the two characters show up on The Guys phone as “The Assholes”). The Guy is used as one of the most basic character tools in narrative storytelling — the audience surrogate. Sinclair and Blichfeld aren’t necessarily telling weed stories, they’re telling character stories, and the construction of the weed dealer allows them access to strange and intimate parts of people’s lives with little narrative leg work necessary. The show barely needs a pilot because it is so clear how and why The Guy operates and the ease in which is can move in and out of characters’ lives.

The strongest episode of the new batch is episode three, “GHENGIS,” in which Evan Waxman, a character featured in a smaller role in two previous episodes, tries to become a teacher in an attempt to be more fulfilled by his career. There are a few shots in “GHENGIS” that accomplish the key beats necessary in the episode to track the arc of the character.

The episode opens with a montage of shots revealing information we already know about Evan from early in the series. He is a man of many eccentric hobbies. At the end of the montage, there is a shot sequence in which he is shown leaving work at a tech startup. The first shot in the sequence is Evan in the top of the frame with a row of computer screening lining the bottom of the frame. He stands out among the machines, smiling widely, unique. He says goodbye to his coworkers, cut to a wide of the office in which the men do not look up from their screens or acknowledge him. Cut back to the shot of Evan and what once read at unique now reads as lonely and vulnerable. He is reaching for a connection that he is not getting at this office. It is a very clear, concise, and economic way to introduce the characters journey of the episode in three simple shots.

Later in the episode, Evan becomes a summer teaching fellow in Brooklyn in an attempt to find more fulfillment in his work, but also more appreciation for his eccentricities. After being relegated to bathroom pass duty, he is finally given his big opportunity to teach a lesson. He dresses up and lectures about Genghis Khan AS Genghis Khan, a performance complete with voice work and pyrotechnics. It is a performance that embodies all of Evan’s quirks and has the camera slowly pans toward him, the viewer is set up with the expectation of this being Evan’s profound growth moment where he is come to be appreciated. Instead, Evan gets heckled by the relentless high school students, the people least likely to accept eccentricities. As the camera looks up at Evan from a low-angle perspective of the students, and cuts between Evan alone in frame and the students listening in disbelief as he reveals to a group of teenagers that he is a proud asexual, Evan’s loneliness and vulnerability stands out more than ever. The episode constantly sets up situations for Evan to work for connection and makes it very clear that he’s most comfortable alone or in his own world.

What is so great about Sinclair and Blichfeld’s work on High Maintenance is their understanding of the web platform’s insistence on simplicity and economics in storytelling. The filmmaker just doesn’t have the same time or ability to slow-burn information to a viewer because the stop button and every other tab is just too tempting. Rather than have this limit them in their narrative complexity, Sinclair and Blichfeld accomplish as much as possible in framing and shot choices so to be able to be as complex as possible in their character work and narrative. Of course, what’s quickly realized is an understanding of these choices isn’t just good web filmmaking, it’s good filmmaking. It’s easy to see not only how Sinclair and Blichfeld’s capabilities and confidence grow over time — each chunk of episodes is pretty reliably an improvement over the last from a filmmaking standpoint — but they also come to understand the uniqueness of their product and how to best execute it.

Brad Becker-Parton is a film person living in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter; you’ll regret it during Knicks games.

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