HBO’s ‘High Maintenance’ Is the Ultimate Urban Empathy Training

high_maintenanceKatja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair’s High Maintenance has made an impressive journey from 2012 cult hit web series to new half-hour HBO show, and thankfully none of its DIY spirit was lost in the process. Currently airing on Fridays at 11:00pm, the six-episode season expands High Maintenance’s hazy cloud to a wider delivery radius, enveloping all the friends, family, neighbors, referrals, and strangers who cross paths with Sinclair as our zen-like guide and NYC weed delivery man “The Guy” along the way.

Even with longer episodes on a mainstream home like HBO, High Maintenance never sticks with a singular format, resulting in some episodes that focus on a handful of characters, some that pay intimate focus to a single client, and some that even drop a few personal updates about the mostly mysterious dealer known only as “The Guy.” His first client from the season premiere “Meth(od),” — a high-strung, intimidating Vin Diesel wannabe played by KeiLyn Durrel Jones — turns out to be a talented British acting student developing a character, and with this simple switch, High Maintenance sets up all the season’s running themes: connection, identity, dependence, and the difference between our public and private personas.

That said, High Maintenance’s ultimate goal isn’t to be preachy or teach some big theme or lesson. In its shorter format, the characters of High Maintenance felt more compartmentalized; the longer episodes on HBO allow the camera to meander away from The Guy’s side more often, leading to more natural reveals and surprises that maintain the same “snackability” that made the web series so unique. It’s a mellow, free-floating character exploration without any agenda or ulterior motive, and the people featured in each episode come from such different walks of life that it feels like High Maintenance opened an NYC phonebook and highlighted names at random, framing each installment around the hand it’s been dealt rather than the hand it was hoping to get.

Blichfeld and Sinclair push that approach to new heights with Friday’s fantastic episode “Grandpa,” where instead of cycling smoothly along from one client to the next, the show’s focus stumbles, stream-of-consciousness-style, from The Guy to his friend Beth (Yael Stone) to the dog she’s been hired to walk during the week. Like the actor in “Meth(od),” the subjects in Blichfeld and Sinclair’s world are rarely who they appear to be at first glance, and “Grandpa” explores that concept through the eyes of a dog who is just as richly complex and yearning for connection as the humans on other episodes. It’s a refreshing deviation from a season full of deviations, and it sinks deep into the heart of what High Maintenance is about: Every living being is as worthy of time, focus, and understanding as the next, and all they need to get it is to know a guy who knows The Guy.

There are also plenty of rewarding moments for fans of the web series, and a handful of characters return for either a full followup (Michael Cyril Creighton, Greta Lee) or to help build a world around a new client’s story (Hannibal Buress, Dan Stevens). The result is, to steal a reference from “Grandpa,” the best kind of “empathy training” — it’s a perfectly mixed bag of interconnected city lives, and whether it’s a young college student (Shazi Raja) hiding her party side from her Muslim family, a wealthy couple of swingers (Lee Tergesen and Amy Ryan), a selfie-obsessed Instagram addict (Ismenia Mendes), or an aging Chinese man collecting cans on the street (Clem Cheung), High Maintenance’s biggest strength is introducing us, without judgment or cynicism, to our everyday “passing glance” strangers through their most vulnerable moments of love, fear, desire, and desperation. And who better to guide us through all that than their weed guy?

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