'High Maintenance' Creators Talk Jumping From Streaming to HBO

A web series on Vimeo since 2012, 'High Maintenance' makes the move to HBO with its Sept. 16 premiere.
Craig Blankenhorn/HBO
'High Maintenance'

After four years and 19 episodes as a web series streaming on Vimeo, High Maintenance makes the jump to television on Sept. 16 with its HBO premiere. 

The premise is the same — a weed dealer known only as The Guy bikes around Brooklyn to deliver his product to clients, serving as the connective tissue for the show's many vignettes about the people of New York — but now the episodes have grown to fit a standard half-hour of television. Where once High Maintenance creators Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair would deliver three videos under 10 minutes in one batch for successive viewing, now they have room to explore multiple stories in one, 30-minute episode.

It's the most notable change in the series since HBO courted it away from the web, and that's intentional. 

In 2014, when High Maintenance became Vimeo's first original series, the husband-wife team was frank about their hesitance to change the format of the show, referencing an effort to bring the critical darling to FX that ended when their creative vision didn't align with the network's. But Sinclair, who also stars in the series as The Guy, says, "HBO celebrated our past work. It was really flattering that HBO recognized that those piece of work on their own were enough. It's like being at a warm, open and accepting family that wants to set you up for success."

In fact, Blichfeld, who won an Emmy for her work as the casting director on 30 Rock, says that HBO expected them to stick to the formula that helped the series develop a cult following online. But as they got to work on upcoming season, technically the series' seventh if counting the previous three-episode seasons, they discovered that many of the stories worked better when told together. "As we wrote them, we started to see parallels in the different stories and ways that they could connect and ways that we could pair them together," says Blichfeld. "We always knew we'd be doing it like this, putting shorter stories within one programming block, but we didn't know that HBO would be cool with us doing that. It was cool that we could replicate the experience of watching the webisodes." 

High Maintenance debuted in 2012 on Vimeo as a self-funded project that was self-distributed on the platform, which bills itself as an ad-free, creator friendly alternative to YouTube. It quickly became one of Vimeo's most popular series, earning a rave review from The New Yorker and attracting the likes of Hannibal Buress and Downton Abbey's Dan Stevens for guest roles. In 2014, the IAC-owned streamer offered to fund the series, charging $2 an episode or $8 for six episodes, released in two, three-episode batches. Following that high-profile season, HBO swooped in with a six-episode offer. It now also streams all previous episodes of the web series, which now include a bonus clip (dubbed "Maintaining") in which Sinclair and Blichfeld discuss each episode. 

But even as they adapted the show for television, the creators have filled the new season with call-backs for fans of the web series. The premiere episode, for example, features two memorable characters who first appeared in season two, acting as a sort of check-up on how their lives have changed in the years since. The show isn't serialized, however, and Sinclair says the goal was to make episodes that stand on their own. "We always have in mind when we craft one of these stories that you can watch one by itself in a vacuum," he adds. "We hope that it's more of a treat for those who have been following us a long time." 

The longer format has also allowed Blichfeld and Sinclair to tease out a few more details about The Guy, a somewhat mysterious character whose personal life rarely seeps into the storyline, who even has a romantic arc that plays out largely off-camera this season. "We love the mystery of The Guy, still," says Blichfeld. "We do have a lot of thoughts about who he is outside of his job, but one thing we've always liked is getting to portray a character in this way where the viewer gets to know him as much as the customer does. By default, because we had so many more stories and so much more story real estate, we got to put more of The Guy in there, but he's still a bit of a mystery." 

While the duo might have a larger budget now that the show has moved to HBO, they say that having more time to craft the series has made the biggest difference in their process. It has allowed them to challenge themselves and take risks that they might not have with the web series. In the premiere, for instance, a character references a ghost that does eventually appear as the credits are rolling. "We really love to embrace the elastic nature of our show, the fact that every episode can have a different tone and story but somehow they feel the same tonally," says Sinclair, with Blichfeld adding: "We have ideas that are way weirder than the ghost. The ghost thing was us scratching the surface and asking, 'will people accept this?'" 

High Maintenance premieres Friday, Sept. 16 at 11 p.m. on HBO.