“Don’t get greedy,” Ben Sinclair’s nameless weed deliveryman tells an artist lamenting the loss of his third decorative ram skull to a departing ex-girlfriend. It’s easy to get tired of even the most exotic routine, and the easiest way to re-appreciate what you’re used to is to introduce a new element. But when you are the new element, you’re constantly finding new routines to appreciate. That’s where Sinclair’s The Guy finds himself, allowing the comedy that grows from his botanical encounters to be so engaging and humanist. In High Maintenance’s second season, the series proves that it knows what it has and refines it to its purest form. There’s complacency, and then there’s knowing not to mess with a good thing.
That said, these episodes represent the first in High Maintenance’s tenure to feature writers and directors other than married creators Katja Blichfeld and Sinclair (aside from one webisode back in 2013, penned by episode star Michael Cyril Creighton). Newlyweeds and People of Earth’s Shaka King directs and co-writes, while Rebecca Drysdale, Isaac Oliver, Hannah Bos, and Paul Thureen contribute to scripts, adding flavor and perspective without destabilizing the tone.
This tone is mad tranquility: yoga’s relaxation unperturbed by a blaring car alarm. The focus is on individuals and their needs, though necessarily loosely, considering the show’s egalitarian absentmindedness. It hears the drone of the city pared down to individual audio channels, each with their own quaint melody. The cinematography, alternatively deadpan (I didn’t know TV could have a deadpan aesthetic until now) and beautiful, finds angles and color palettes as diverse as its situations, all apt for conveying such charms as a fabulous rave prop wonderland that hosts the irritatingly catchy song “‘What’re You Up To, Elizabeth Shue?” Its only consistent part, The Guy, holds it all together even when on the fringes. Sinclair’s tired stare and low-key delivery are those of a favorite bar regular to whom you feel comfortable grousing over life’s unfairnesses.
That makes him (and his supply) a must-have, whether things are going well or an unnamed tragedy is plaguing the world. High Maintenance, sometimes through Sinclair’s character and sometimes not, finds New York as a city full of people ready to make a connection, no matter how brief or superficial. It is networking at its purest, because everyone genuinely seems like they’re trying to help each other out—because they, like The Guy, all seem interested in other people.
And that’s why this series feels so amiable—it’s separated into good listeners and bad listeners, with the show’s morality siding with the attentive ones. Hard. People living three-loosie, Miller High Life lives hold equal importance with upper-crust condo owners, though our sympathies are gently and evenly directed behind those that deserve them most thanks to the steady hands of Blichfeld, Sinclair and King. They soak their narratives in gentrification, finding small cruelties and betrayals in the same ambition that enhances the city’s community.
The bartenders, tourists, realtors, celebrants, and children tangential to drug deals are both atmosphere and heart of the series, cast so immaculately that everyone feels like a breakout. Joined together, they crystalize into social set pieces that are an encapsulation of human magic, like the blissful transformation of a trainful of groggy commuters into a joyful group of balloon-boppers in “Globo.” High Maintenance creates snow globes of realism lined up for our shelves.
In its relatable struggles, it becomes not the cracked-out Seinfeld successor of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, but a mellower, frumpier, cozier one. Even when there’s a six-foot Chekhov’s python slithering in its terrarium, the show’s focus is always on the brief encounters—be they sex, conversations, photo ops, or goodbyes—between its lightly-sketched people. The neuroses of people you might not expect—like older parents wanting to be hip in their AirBnB, Hasidic Jews (and the Vice writers who want to date/exploit them), drag queens, lesbian activists, or ex-wives (seen in “Scromple,” which is a delightful nickname for The Guy given by said ex-wife, played by the equally delightful Kate Lyn Sheil)—offer nuanced, modern comedy with biting wit that never fails to punch in palatable trajectories.
Nosiness is just one degree separated from friendly concern, and everyone sharing a joint is a pal. When that’s your reality—hell, your livelihood—it’s easy to project that inherent friendliness onto the public at large, which makes for a refreshingly pleasant comedy. High Maintenance’s freewheeling episodes don’t subscribe to a particular rhythm or structure, they just wander through lives whenever things seem interesting, like a lackadaisical stoner flipping channels or browsing Netflix. Only here, it’s the lives of their neighbors, and everyone has something interesting to offer. It’s a confident series that wishes the best for everyone and, in delivering it, encourages us to appreciate the minor comedies and dramas around us. Even if we’re stone-cold sober.
Season Two of High Maintenance premieres Friday, Jan. 19 at 11 p.m. on HBO.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.