'High Maintenance' Season 4: TV Review

David Russell
Still one of TV's best.
2/7/2020

HBO's top-notch stoner anthology returns for a promising fourth season, offering little slices of New York City one puff at a time.

In the second episode of High Maintenance's fourth season, a man and a woman meet on a New York City film set and spark instant chemistry. He's a magician serving as a background extra; she's the on-site intimacy coordinator with a background in trauma therapy. Their mutual warmth radiates during a joyful first date that includes coffee, weed and jigsaw puzzles, but when he comes out to her as asexual, even the expert stumbles, unsure of how to assert her needs while he asserts his boundaries. In a series of beautifully acted and directed scenes, intuitive Kym (Abigail Bengson) silently equivocates on this predicament, her face routinely brightening and falling as she internally measures how to pursue this effortless connection, if at all. She doesn't want to hurt this gentle soul and thus constantly monitors, then edits, her instinctive responses. But what if respecting someone's desires means neglecting your own?

High Maintenance, HBO's superlative urban ethnography, has always examined the different masks we wear as we go about our daily lives. Set in New York, the comedy follows the travails of a scraggly, congenial marijuana delivery man (co-creator Ben Sinclair, a sunny John Malkovich), who bicycles around the city supplying pot and introducing us to the various kooks, strivers and romantics who grind through this distinctly weird landscape. (We never spend too long with "The Guy"; he's the heart of this anthology, but not necessarily its emotional anchor.) Drugs are beside the point. Each episode is an intimate window into a new life — a birdwatcher diagnosed with cancer, an agoraphobic caretaker obsessed with Helen Hunt, a woman addicted to the thrill of exposing just one breast. These detailed character studies are often hilarious and poignant, but never cruel or cloying. They elevate the art form of the ironic vignette, saturating it with searing humanity.

Creators  and ex-spouses Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld frequently satirize the artisans who animate the city, simultaneously rebuking bougie hipster culture while also reinforcing the cooler-than-thou snobbery of the creative class. (As the two have become more famous, they've frustratingly indulged in the illusion of New York as "Hollywood East," setting many of the series' later episodes on film sets or in the lives of successful entertainers.) Performativity, Sinclair and Blichfeld argue, however, isn't just a practice for creatives, but an element of life that we all participate in. They take a lens to the rhythm of our days: We see characters perform at work and perform at home. Sometimes they perform a role to themselves. Eight years since its debut as a six-minute web series on Vimeo (HBO picked up the series in 2016 and expanded it to a half-hour), High Maintenance still hypnotizes, even as we've slipped from the delicate optimism of the early 2010s to the bulldozing nihilism of 2020s.

In the terrific opening episodes of season four, we watch the masks go on and the masks come off. We meet Natalie Woolams-Torres' Yara, hungry young producer at This American Life (ugh, see what I mean about its increasingly chichi disconnect?). She can't help but mine her personal life for story ideas, if only to hear the intellectualizing coos from her peers during staff meetings. She shares a tiny studio with her tender boyfriend (Marcus Raye Pérez), but when her "everything is copy" mindset goes too far, she risks losing him forever. (Which still doesn't stop her from succumbing to the baseline temptation to view every tragic experience as producible content, regardless of whether the people in her life want to be exposed or not.)

In between these fraught moments of personal realization and guilty capitulation, we're treated to the comical misadventures of a manic singing telegram deliverer (Larry Owens). The irritable young man dashes through New York shuffling through crowds, losing balloons and snapping at bystanders to stop filming him, even though he's bedecked in a floor-length gown and blond wig about to warble "Happy Birthday" Marilyn Monroe-style to a mortified stranger. “Chicken’s got a full day!” he cracks in full hen garb. Owens is a pure charm, his character's waspishness swelling until a hurried trip to a cafe restroom brings him necessary catharsis. (Fantasy sequences aren't usually my thing, but watching Owens frolic through colon-like fabric scenery tickled me.)

The second episode is even better, juxtaposing an awkward sex-work encounter with the budding romance between two people with opposing needs for physical affection.

"The Guy" is the connective tissue between each of these stories, as our characters often get stoned while navigating these complex situations. This season, he picks up a stray, one-eyed pooch he adorably dubs his "chubby little twinky." As he and his new companion cycle through the city, one on the seat, the other in the basket, a wave of anticipatory calm washes over you. One of the most popular toy trends of the last half decade has been the "mystery box" — products like L.O.L Surprise! and Hatchimals, which obscurely package the prize inside to heighten the fun of unveiling. High Maintenance utilizes the same mechanism: You never know what little delight you're going to find.

Cast: Ben Sinclair, Natalie Woolams-Torres, Marcus Raye Pérez, Larry Owens, Calvin Leon Smith, Jay Jurden, Abigail Bengson, Avery Monsen
Executive producers: Ben Sinclair, Katja Blichfeld, Russell Gregory
Premieres: Friday, 11 p.m. ET/PT (HBO)