David Russell

High Maintenance: Season Two

High Maintenance: Season Two

3.5 out of 53.5 out of 53.5 out of 53.5 out of 5 3.5

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It must have been hard for Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair, the husband-and-wife creators of High Maintenance, to sit back during their HBO show’s hiatus and watch cool kids like Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson address the buzz kill of the Donald Trump presidency. How to get in on that action? At some point, I like to think they decided to just roll a blunt and chill. Certainly that’s what the show’s season-two premiere episode suggests they did.

“Globo” sees The Guy (Sinclair) biking his way around Brooklyn, delivering weed to a motley collection of clients who are distraught over a world-changing event. The episode is cute—maybe a little too cute—in never describing this event, abstracting the source of everyone’s impotent horror in a way that feels unproductive: like a chorus of “not my president.” Until “Globo” arrives at a point of grace that, like so many episodes of High Maintenance, celebrates the resilience of being a New Yorker. Turns out, the episode’s message was productive all along: Nevertheless, we persisted.

It would be unfair to describe this scene in detail, because there’s a lovely alchemy to it—how incidental the moment feels until suddenly it becomes instrumental—that feels necessary for viewers to discover on their own. The scene represents one of those New York moments that are difficult to explain to anyone who’s never taken a seat on a subway after a day that’s brought you to your knees, and then, suddenly, something happens that puts your worries into perspective. The sense of “foundness” to this scene is a reminder of how such moments are right around the corner, capable of rousing us from stagnation. And if you’re a fan of High Maintenance, the moment also just happens to speak to the unpredictable nature of The Guy’s daily grind: how walking into every transaction is a New York moment waiting to happen.

In “Fagin,” the sight of a woman walking around her stretch of Bushwick with a cat on her shoulder is at first cloying, until this whimsical caricature is understood as a fantasy: a projection of a couple’s (Marcia DeBonis and Ray Anthony Thomas) desire to almost will a New York moment into being. Visiting their daughter (Amanda Debraux) in the city, the husband and wife pretend that they’re staying at an unkempt Airbnb with a loft bed and a boa constrictor in the corner because that’s all they can afford, when really it’s because they want to get off on the hustle that still drives people to New York.

That is, until the fantasy becomes too real and they get a hotel room. Then, a new story takes over the episode, involving a group of woman prepping for a politically minded meetup. Throughout, Blichfeld and Sinclair gently rib the way that the women are obsessed with the optics of their group dynamic, and by the time the connection between both sections of the episode is made explicit, they also reveal the women’s initial aversion to The Guy being inside Brenna (Brenna Palughi) and Molly’s (Molly Knefel) apartment as performative. Not invalid, only trivial compared to the new threat that now looms over every woman and man in the room without discrimination.

All of High Maintenance’s episodes proceed in a similar manner: snaking from one New York story to the next, without condescension for what it sees, disarming you with the way the stories are ultimately linked. Sometimes, too, it’s as if the episodes are in conversation with one another. In “Fagin,” the wait staff at a restaurant bemoans (in Spanish) that a server took a plate of oysters away from a homeless man even after a dining couple allowed the man to sample the dish. This class divide is more explicitly the subject of “Namaste,” which focuses on a couple, Candace (Candace Thompson) and John (John E. Peery), who win an affordable-housing lottery and are oppressed by how they’re cordoned off from certain parts of their new building. After sneaking with The Guy into the building’s sauna, Candace and John are reprimanded for entering the space, but before Candace can get her frustrations completely off her chest, the black security guard’s exasperated send-off (“Jesus Christ, just wrap it up soon”) makes it clear that she’s wasting her words: He knows that the system is rigged against people like them.

Okay, maybe High Maintenance has some contempt for the stick-in-the-muds who, through sheer force of will, close themselves off from others and in turn exacerbate the rush of gentrification. But Blichfeld and Sinclair have fun regarding the changing character of New York. Theirs is a lightness of spirit that never feels smug, and is evident even in seemingly throwaway gags, like an extended reference to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

With that in mind, the highlight of High Maintenance’s new season is “Derech,” because it’s the episode where all of the show’s thematic concerns, along with its flair for misdirection, most effortlessly converge. Centered on an ex-Hasidic man (Luzer Twersky) who’s probably being taken advantage of by a Vice reporter (Ismenia Mendes) for a story, the episode zigs and zags its way to its unexpected conclusion, recontextualizing our view of everyone along the way. And by the time one of the drag performers (Darrell Thorne) who earlier sings “What are you up to, Elisabeth Shue?” in a moment of stoned bliss swoops in to save the day, High Maintenance has again digressively arrived at a familiar and comforting place. Here and elsewhere, the series attests with great compassion to the revitalizing effects of living in a place where, while more homogeneous than it once was, pockets of resistance remain—and where people are nothing if not alive to the power of difference.

HBO, Fridays, 11 p.m.
Ben Sinclair, Joshua Schubart, Marcia DeBonis, Ray Anthony Thomas, Amanda Debraux, Brenna Balughi, Molly Knefel, Danielle Brooks, Candace Thompson, John E. Peery, Luzer Twersky, Darrell Thorne, Abdullah Saeed, Kate Lyn Sheil