High Maintenance: The Web's Best TV Show

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High Maintenance got me to watch TV on my computer.

I’m not young, but I’m not old. I’ve been on the web for over half of my life, but I was already practically an adult when I first experienced it through Netscape Navigator in 1994. I don’t fear computers or hate the internet, but why would I ever want to watch TV on a small monitor when I could sit in a comfortable chair and stare at the unnecessarily large screen in my living room?

I’m still skeptical, but High Maintenance, the web-only show from Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair, is good enough for me to forsake the couch and 48 inch TV and stay parked in front of my computer. The irregularly sized, intermittently released series follows an unnamed pot delivery guy (played by Sinclair) as he sells to clients throughout Brooklyn. Each episode focuses on a different client, taking us into their apartment and offering us glimpses of their daily existence. It’s a low-key show full of understated humor that almost always refuses to judge its characters, no matter how idiosyncratic they might be. And despite the drug comedy setup, weed is never the focus—the spotlight remains on the lives of a demographically varied cross-section of modern-day New Yorkers.

Even Blichfeld and Sinclair didn’t expect much when they cast their weird little weed show out into the internet a few years ago. “We didn’t have many expectations for this at all,” Blichfeld admits. “Our expectations were that just friends, family and some industry people might see these when we sent them around. But what happened is way beyond—this isn’t even something we fantasized at length about. I think for a moment we allowed ourselves to think that it could reach a wider audience but we didn’t have the expectation. It’s all just been gravy for us.”

What happened is that High Maintenance became an underground online hit. It spread through word of mouth, from fan to fan, not explosively enough to be called viral, but gradually, like kudzu. TV critics loved it—Emily Nussbaum of the New Yorker called it “luxurious…and humane, radiating new ideas about storytelling.” The video-streaming website Vimeo came calling, and struck a deal to help finance six episodes. The final three of those episodes debut on Vimeo today, with a marketing campaign that Blichfeld and Sinclair are still taken aback by.

“Now that there’s marketing money behind the show, and Vimeo’s done so much to promote the show and get it out there, my God—we were on the sides of buses and buildings and phone kiosks last fall and it’s starting up again. That was kind of overwhelming to us,” Blichfeld says, not out of disappointment but out of surprise.

The plan all along was to use High Maintenance as a professional calling card, as a way to get new work for both Sinclair and Blichfeld. They built a show that would “showcase Ben’s acting abilities in a way he hadn’t really had an opportunity to do in his paid work before,” Blichfeld explains, while also showing off his editing skills. Blichfeld, who was a casting director on 30 Rock, also saw it as “a great showcase for my casting aesthetic.”

Although they were initially skeptical about producing the show for the web, they quickly learned to love it. “You’re just constantly figuring out more things you could do that you wouldn’t be able to do with traditional models,” Sinclair says. “They say you can do anything on the web, and that’s true, but not many people have taken advantage of the yet still unimagined ways you can watch media. It’s not having the constraints of big clunky broadcast networks that are still kind of from the 70s.”

High Maintenance // Heidi from Janky Clown Productions on Vimeo.

The earliest episodes were especially economical, running for just a few minutes. “In the beginning we were very concerned with length,” Blichfeld says. “We had it in our minds that episodes shouldn’t be longer than five or six minutes.” It was a practical decision—it was cheaper and easier to make and let them find their creative voice without overburdening themselves.

The length gradually expanded, and the latest episodes run between 11 and 20 minutes. The quality hasn’t dipped, though—they don’t feel padded or stretched. These three episodes perhaps aren’t as compassionate as previous ones, but it still steers clear of the easy cynicism so pervasive in our culture.

“We’re just expanding and contracting and pushing the bar a little bit for ourselves as creators every time and seeing what we can pull off,” Sinclair says. “I think we’re approaching the sweet spot and in order to do that you’ve got to see what you’re capable of. These last six are more expansive with more characters and they spend more time outside the protagonists’ homes, and I think we’ll probably contract a little bit in the next episodes we do and try to tap into the constraints we used that were purely temporal and pragmatic and financial before. We might go back to that format of just using the person’s most immediate environment to tell what we need to know about them and letting the audience fill in the rest. We got excited and we colored outside of our own lines a little bit with these last six.”

The longest new episode, “Sabrina”, which sees a couple of familiar faces return, is also the longest the show has ever done. Blichfeld tells me that, although they try to be succinct, they’ve never intentionally set a restriction on how many pages they could write or how many minutes they could shoot for. Still, they were worried about how long “Sabrina” could get.

“[‘Sabrina’] was originally 27 pages,” Sinclair says, “and we were like, ‘oh shit, this is really long’. We went into it knowing we were going to chop the hell out of it and that the creative ideas would speak more volumes about what was happening than just having people talk about it. I think we figured out the best way to get to those points and we shrunk it down to like 19 minutes with credits. So that was like taking off a third of the script.

“I am extraordinarily anxious when we’re at the three minute mark and we haven’t even seen the title cards yet,” Sinclair says. “That kind of situation is always something as the editor that I’m trying to ameliorate and massage. It’s like those vacuum seal bags you get at CostCo where you store your shit. You pack all your shit in the bag and you put the vacuum on it and sucks all the extra air out, and that process takes a couple of weeks.”

The show’s success has opened up new opportunities for the couple. They’re spending more time in Los Angeles, working on various projects, including what Sinclair calls “some branded content stuff”, and also writing new episodes of High Maintenance. They plan to split time between LA and New York, which raises the obvious question: could High Maintenance take place in Los Angeles and remain the same show?

“I’ve noticed that weed delivery is scarcer out here,” Sinclair says. “People usually just come down to the car and do the money transaction there. It’s not inside the apartment as much as it is in New York.”

“That’s such a big part of our show and our structure and the way we tell our stories,” Blichfeld chimes in. “We rely so heavily on people’s immediate environments to tell the story and to give information about their character. It’s hard to imagine what it would look like in Los Angeles, but it would be possible. We are interested in conceiving of a way to do that at some point.”

These three episodes wrap up the current deal with Vimeo. It might be extended or renewed, but Blichfeld and Sinclair plan on continuing the show regardless. What started as a personal project has taken them farther than they ever expected, and they’re not ready to leave it behind yet.

“The show has opened up so many doors,” Sinclair says. “It is a testament to just following your gut and letting it take you to the place you want to be. Because fear equals thinking plus time.”

Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games and comedy sections. He is on Twitter @grmartin.

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