How hasn’t everyone heard of High Maintenance by now? Are they too busy talking about Serial and Too Many Cooks? Where was the buzz when the new episodes came out November 11th? Tell me you’ve heard of it. You haven’t? Come on! Well allow me to introduce you.
Imagine Louis CK directing Short Cuts based in present day New York City. It’s about weed and it’s got humor but it also doesn’t have a lot of weed humor. Does that make sense? If The Wire is the television equivalent of a novel, High Maintenance is the web series equivalent of your favorite book of short stories.
Confused? Don’t worry. Hell, The Big Lebowski didn’t make any sense the first time, either. Frankly, I had to be sent a couple of episodes before I got into it too.
I was introduced to it when my friend Pat sent me a link to an episode called Olivia. I had no context for it. It was a short. It showed you a montage of the lives of two besties as they made their way through their unbearably fashionable New York existence. The character of Olivia was only spoken about. She did not appear in the episode. At one point a weed dealer showed up and you get to see what true assholes these two were.
A week later Pat sent me another one. This one was called Jonathan. It featured comic Hannibal Buress (now famous for launching a Cosby crusade) on the road. He gets freaked out when a gun is fired during one of his shows. Once again, the weed dealer shows up, this time trying to offer some sort of solace.
Several viewings later, I realized that the character of Olivia was actually in the episode titled Jonathan. The title, like all of the titles, didn’t necessarily refer to a character. It came from the mention of Jonathan Ames who doesn’t appear in any episodes in the series. I was intrigued. I watched them all. I was hooked.
Creators Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair have done what a lot of my favorite shows have done. They have created a world and each episode shows us a glimpse into someone’s particular corner of that world. It’s less a web series than an interconnected collection of short films. Characters cross-pollinate the episodes. You don’t have to watch the episodes in sequence. The episodes don’t rely on typical story arcs. The character is the story. You watch to figure out who this character is and how he or she is going to change. It can be a relatively small victory from an act of courage like in Sarah or Trixie or it can be a harsh, uncomfortable realization like Dinah or Qasim.
You also watch to see how the weed dealer, known simply as The Guy (played by co-creator Sinclair), is going to enter. It’s ironic that in such a character driven show, we know the least about its central character. We know that he has a niece and that he is, in fact, not married. Beyond that, he’s just a charming, bike helmet clad everyman that everyone in this world knows.
High Maintenance is also important because they are the premiere content of Vimeo who will now be offering original content. It’s $7.99 for the next six episodes, only three of which are available right now. I don’t know if this is the future of entertainment but in a climate in which most music and comedy and writing is given away for free, I am happy to pay artists making things that I enjoy.
Much like Louis CK offering his comedy specials online for five dollars, this model relies somewhat on the honor code. Partnering with Vimeo takes away the problem of instant bit torrents but trading of logins could be a problem a la HBO Go or Netflix. We also forget that Louis CK made money through major networks for decades before he earned enough cachet to warrant asking people to pay five dollars and have them give it. High Maintenance had to give away 13 high quality episodes for free before making any money.
Who knows if this model is sustainable but in the Internet age, you can get a lot of entertainment for free. We don’t need more videos. We need more great videos. High Maintenance is great and it’s worth your time.