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‘High Maintenance’: A love letter to New Yorkers

Photo: The New York Times

By Anandi Mishra

High Maintenance made its way into my life earlier this year by chance. In the last quarter of 2019, I had an Emily Nussbaum phase. I saw every interview she ever was a part of and read every word by the former New Yorker’s TV critic. I would listen to her interviews, read reviews and excerpts of her recent book, making running notes about every show, obscure, alluring or mainstream she would talk of. Poring over them again on one January evening, I stumbled across more than a few mentions of High Maintenance and so I decided to start watching it on an impulse. I would soon forget about time. It became an active part of my consciousness, making me see everything through an “HM” lens. While walking to or from work, or while looking for an auto, or while traveling in the metro, I would go over its dialogues mentally, thinking about a New York so different from most other NYC depictions on TV.

The show made inroads to my conversations with friends and colleagues. What is bewildering though is that despite the quiet and unsung greatness of the show, there are barely any footprints of it anywhere online. Among friends and groups of acquaintances who devour good TV, no one seemed to know of or about it. Not a screen grab, no clip, no famous lines from it.

But for me, life after watching High Maintenance was altered. Absorbing from it a different kind of New York – an NYC of conversations, vast open spaces, and gardens, of smokers, and rave parties, all shown without the slightest judgment. I would be taking my evening walk and looking at the façade of my neighborhood club, and a perfect piece of sagely advice ‘The Guy’ had shelled out to someone on the show would appear as a thought bubble. I would think of the ugly noisiness of Delhi’s grimy pubs and would take a catnip and nap in bed to the thought of the guy’s niece and how utterly lonely he was so as to want her validation. The show, in its self-effacing aloofness, and adroit distinctness, almost always danced dimly at the back of my mind. By the end of the second season, I was a transformed person; little by little, High Maintenance had worked its magic on me, through time and over half the world, spellbinding me.

Genre-wise a dramedy, High Maintenance is an American anthology show created by Ben Sin­clair and Katja Blichfeld. The show has a distinct navel-gazing, personal, indie and filmic feel to it. What started off as very private experiments, by the former couple, of varied lengths on Vimeo, soon caught the fantasy of HBO and was aired as proper but disjointed vignettes in 2016. The premise of High Maintenance is direct: it follows ‘The Guy’, a cannabis courier (played by Sinclair), as he delivers his product to a vast and ever evolving clientele across New York. Each episode is unhinged and focuses on a new set of characters as their lives intersect with this weed dealer who is known to us as ‘The Guy’ till the season finale. He acts as the connecting thread between the lives of various New Yorkers who may or may not otherwise meet. The episodes in the first season are of varied lengths, but largely comprise two stories, each of about 12-13 minutes.

As Delhi moved into its fourth phase of lockdown (10th or 11th week, who knows) I watched its recent season seated at home. These episodes were all a lot of feelings, making it somewhat seem like an ode to the city and its people. A balm to the harshness of self-isolation. Reflections meaningful and banal while in meandering, seemingly unending shared cab rides in New York City. Comfort in the company of strangers in a hostel. Suspension of daily life as we know it in the face of an NYC blizzard. The show came as a form of televised collective spiritual counseling, weaving its magic by drawing attention to the limitations of self-isolation, and highlighting the charms of society. It served as a timely reminder of the quotidian beauty of the mundane around us, and of appreciating the moment in which we exist in the now.

While the second last episode seemed like a strange time capsule from a pre-Covidian era, with a simulacrum of travel, eating out, and carefree socializing, all built poetically in it. I felt moved beyond words, into physical emotions, while watching it, as the episode revealed itself to be a lament for everything the world before the virus stood for. My favorite episode from the show remains the second episode of the first season, Museebat, that’s in part a story of a Pakistani-American girl trying to kickback and find some relaxation in her otherwise strict household. While the show has inherently been sympathetic towards the outliers, tricksters and hustlers, in the recent episodes we see Sinclair and Blichfeld take risks and expand their horizons like never before. These risks help the show find the High Maintenance sweet spot each time, with unbridled emphasis on the way isolation and intimacy can overlap. It holds lovingly well as a show that continues to keep looking in and not judge.

Through its protagonist ‘The Guy’, High Maintenance shows that attention is the highest form of loving, or care. It carves beautiful jewel like vignettes out of the very regular lives of New Yorkers, ‘The Guy’ embodying a kind of care that suggests that every life is beautiful, full of its own joys and dramas. His customers, people on the streets and practical strangers, all seem to open up to him, and in return he radiates an openness, a kindness that comes from paying close attention to people who make up the ecosystem of our lives.

While Sinclair didn’t intend for the fourth season to be seen through the lens of a global pandemic – when, instead of loud streets bustling with people, the whole world is an endless echo of sirens and hara-kiri of an imperceptible kind. As time melts and our lives spread out as shapeless amoebas, we are keenly aware that no two days are the same – the world changing drastically with every new day. It is then, a kind of relief that the context of each new episode also has a different universe in which it operates, allowing the imagination to seep into our lives as well. “It’s kind of hard just being a human being sometimes,” Sinclair said in a recent interview emphasizing on that now more than ever is a good time for people to watch the show. “I think people are looking around at their lives and finding themselves feeling lonely, and then they see other people feeling lonely in these stories, and how that’s OK, to not feel OK…. We show that life is messy, and we confirm their suspicions that it’s kind of hard just being a human being sometimes. That can be in very quiet ways. That all speaks to the tone of our show,” he said.

High Maintenance is unquestionably a New York show and it elevates the noisy chaos and dense nature of urban life into a form of visual art. It creates a new, if small, space recognising the charming ways of life and its different forms that exist parallel to each other, close yet aloof. The show was  almost unbearably poetic to watch while the streets outside were empty. As the never-ending sirens and sounds of just a few airplanes tore the skies above, I would watch the show, daydreaming and plotting my occasional grocery runs to avoid the queues and crowds around the neighborhood. In the cold blue of a few nights, I would allow the show to take over my senses, and see the fabled, much documented New Yorkers in their dynamic, buzzing, vibrant hues. The lives of these people that I would otherwise not get to see. A mutable city so beautiful and as such, viewed as a frequently altered palimpsest. High Maintenance felt like a timely love note to the people of the city who are right now all tucked away in their apartments.

As a show that has always been about loneliness, it stands to be immensely viewable during the ongoing pandemic more than ever. Drawing on the emotions of frailty of human relationships, weird shapes of routines and messiness of being alone, High Maintenance shines as a singular voice on urban loneliness and how spaces simultaneously confine and liberate us. There might not be too many constructive parallels between the New York of High Maintenance and the terrible state of the world we inhabit now, but the show keeps its promise of making us fall in love with the minutiae of the quotidian life.

More than anything else, High Maintenance is close documentation of a city and its people, not so much the restaurants, museums or clubs of New York, but a people in their form and glory peppered by highly personal revelations, flimsy one offs, life-long friendships, and coping mechanisms. ‘The Guy’ is largely unperturbed by the changing rhythms of everyday life and is unfazed by the interjections of other people he comes across.

With the agile and continuous mobility that perfumes the show, cutting across varied locations, and the constant if not manic travel ‘The Guy’ undertakes, High Maintenance made me miss eating out and being able to take walks so much so that, I took to walking on the terrace. But there do exist a few parallels, in which there lies some relief. Characters, like us, are more or less confined to the indoors, puffing on a doobie, engaged in deep boozy cultural discourse. Like us, they listen to music and do household chores, read and sometimes talk quite a bit on the phone. They cook, interact with one another. Though the characters on High Maintenance get to venture out a lot more than us, their quiet domestic lives are similarly wedged between the now and a sense of urgency.

While the seductive fantasy of seclusion and isolation along with the urban cacophony form the soul of the show, High Maintenance with its obsessive verisimilitude shows us that in cities we are always learning new ways to be together, alone. ‘The Guy’’s job as a courier makes High Maintenance exceptionally attuned to New York’s shifting anxieties and mores, lending it a vulnerable intelligence. With its depiction of numerous bodegas, a people tormented by their personal histories, a city haunted by its status, the show encourages us to embrace the chaos. Despite the haggling, nagging and near sinuous nature of his troubles, ‘The Guy’ tells his niece in the last episode, “We’re not broken. And we don’t need to be fixed.”

Bio:
Anandi Mishra
is a Delhi-based writer and communications professional. Her works have appeared in Berfrois and are forthcoming in 3AM Magazine.

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Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City and India. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.

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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Poetics and politics of the ‘everyday’: Engaging with India’s northeast”, edited by Bhumika R, IIT Jammu and Suranjana Choudhury, NEHU, India.

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