TV critics are open to the idea that a web series could be the best show around. They’ve just picked the wrong one. According to Metacritic, critics’ favorite new show this fall is Amazon Video’s Transparent (admittedly a brilliant title), a show about Mort Pfefferman’s announcement to his adult children that he’s actually Maura, a woman. I must be missing something, but I don’t see what they’re seeing. It can’t just be that critics are eager to praise a show for finally foregrounding a trans character: they’ve already fallen all over themselves for prison-joke-show Orange is the New Black, which, like Transparent, never seems to be sure if it’s a comedy or a drama and therefore suffers when it tries to be either. In the latter, Jeffrey Tambor plays Mort and Maura, and he’s a pleasure to watch, but he doesn’t have much to work with: his children are entitled, upper-class Californians who don’t want to learn or change and we wouldn’t want to relate to even if we could. The writing is often clumsy; in the first four episodes (which critics saw for initial reviews) I’ve cringed at least once in every scene without Tambor.
The web series that everyone should be talking about (and some people were talking in 2012-13, but not enough) is High Maintenance, on Vimeo. Metacritic doesn’t aggregate reviews for it, even though it’s been extolled in the New Yorker, the New Republic, Slate, and elsewhere. (Note: I emailed and tweeted to Metacritic inquiring about the absence and haven’t heard back.)
High Maintenance’s running thread is The Guy, an anonymous pot dealer played by show co-creator Ben Sinclair, who bikes to deliver to each episode’s real main character. Some characters recur, starring in some episodes and in the background of others. Every episode is funny, insightful, thoughtfully constructed and scored and filmed. None are really about marijuana, but several characters use it in various ways: as a crutch, conversation starter, self-medication, escape. But that’s rarely the point either. Most bring a life lesson of sorts, and character insights, but they’re conveyed as casually as The Guy slipping you an eighth, with enough respect for the audience not to beat us over the head.
FX courted Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld, his wife and co-creator, for a cable deal, but thankfully they stayed online. For High Maintenance’s newest season, you’ll have to pay per episode or, the better deal, for the full season, but it’s well worth it.
Previously, episodes ranged from 5 to 16 minutes long, and the first few of the new season are a little longer, 14-18. Vimeo is releasing these new episodes in bursts: the first three are out now, the next three are out in January, and so forth.
The first episode of the newest season is the best, while the other two are good examples of what happens when the series strays from its strengths. Watch the shows first if you want to avoid spoilers. In the first episode, “Ruth,” The Guy connects two of his clients, both single New Yorkers looking to be matched up. They have a nice first date, but no sparks fly — no big risks were taken, but they both felt comfortable: they smoked in the park, asked bizarre questions, shared a goodnight kiss. Then it turns out she kept a secret that The Guy accidentally spilled: she had stomach cancer. On their second date, while cooking peppers, the man tries to hide that he knows, the woman confronts him, and tension holds. Just at that moment, when their potential energy is waiting to be released or made kinetic, he goes to the bathroom, and gets jalapeño on his dick. The night’s plans are ruined, made both more and less intimate than planned. They share a hilarious recovery, she spends the night, and there’s a poignant turning point the next morning.
The subtle point, narratively, is that The Guy set them up and almost derailed their connection, but his returning to the story kept it moving. The Guy is the audience conduit, the interlocutor, keeping it real. He’s always insightful, always knows what to say. He meets New York’s weirdest but refuses to judge, instead indulging those who sometimes order weed just to socialize. His relative absence from the next two episodes allowed them to drift into caricature.
In “Genghis,” an asexual white magician named Evan quits his boring job to assistant teach underprivileged black kids in Brooklyn. Aside from his sexual non-orientation, this one hits all the stereotypes: the black kids don’t give a shit, the regular teacher doesn’t care either, and the white guy is doofy and everyone laughs at him. At conferences behind the scenes, Evan learns that all the teachers are resigned to prejudice and discipline and have given up on teaching and positivity. The episode’s best line is a throwaway by none of the main characters, delivered in sign language: a rejected actor signs, “I thought doing that fat girl monologue from Louie was such a good idea.” The lesson here is that Evan needs to grow up, but it’s too obvious: we get that he’s childish, after montages of him playing games, doing magic tricks, and watching cartoons, that’s plenty clear. The message is sent when it’s mirrored by his childlike naivety in thinking he could stroll into Brooklyn and make a difference. Had The Guy been more involved earlier on, he could’ve told Evan that sooner. He may not judge, but his wisdom is worth listening to.
In “Geiger,” a woman’s extended nightmare about her boyfriend becoming an extreme survivalist is echoed uncannily in real life. In the dream, which takes up the first half of the episode, fiancé Andrew delves into the world of preppers, and persuades Lucy to become hyper-prepared too. When she wakes up, she smokes a bowl, and maps out their wedding seating with Post-Its. The next day, he drops a wildly unsubtle line, “It’s not the end of the world.”
Then the focus shifts to her anxiety, with Andrew asking if she took her Xanax, and then calling up The Guy, saying Lucy “needs it.” Andrew pressures him for a pound of weed, and when he won’t go for it, Andrew wants his seller’s information. The Guy tells him he can get seeds online, and Andrew becomes obsessed. The fable about how over-focusing on the future prevents you from appreciating the present is far too heavy-handed to enjoy. We got the message in both halves (the dream and reality), didn’t need both, and either one could’ve been cut down. What would’ve been more effective is to cut out the dream and instead draw out The Guy’s concurrent story, in which he visits an AMSR YouTuber and tries to understand her process. Just those few seconds are the episode’s best. The YouTuber is Andrew’s extreme opposite, completely in the present moment, enjoying how the weed bag’s crinkle triggers a “wonderful” sensory reaction. Cut back to Andrew, whom we assume Lucy will soon be leaving. The contrast would’ve still made Andrew’s obsession unnerving, but the lesson wouldn’t be so clumsily implied.
But none of that takes away from the touching, understated lyricism of “Ruth,” nor from High Maintenance’s past episodes, filled with touching, understated moments. In “Stevie,” The Guy offends an uptight client when he reads her pill bottle, but he’s quickly disarming, and by the end of the seven-minute episode, the phone she couldn’t put down before she’s now throwing in the toilet. In “Jonathan,” a dissatisfied comedian suddenly has to cope with an act of violence. Each one is subtle, different from the rest, and different from anything on TV.
Maybe some critics aren’t giving it the time of day because some episodes are so short, some just a few minutes long. But consider the way Louie, heralded as narratively groundbreaking, comprises two 15-minute segments (with commercials, so closer to 11). And why should High Maintenance have to fit into cable-TV lengths? That was likely an enticing point of avoiding FX’s offer — the freedom to end episodes when the stories end, no filler needed. It is this type of consideration that makes High Maintenance well worth your time, and worth a little more of TV critics’ attention.