High Maintenance's Barbed Take on Mass Mourning

The HBO comedy’s second season opened with an unnamed horror sending Brooklyn’s pot smokers into narcissism.

Ben Sinclair in 'High Maintenance'
David Russell / HBO

Everyone knows this dilemma, now. You wake up, check your phone, and find that something terrible has happened in the world. What do you do next? What are you allowed to do next? Go to work or call out? Self-medicate? Is it okay to meet friends for a drink? Is it insensitive to have sex? (Louis C.K.’s ever-more-infamous 9/11 joke comes to mind.) Can you try to profit from crisis? Can you ignore it? Should you do something?

Or is it odd to be thinking about yourself at all?

High Maintenance, Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld’s deeply humane observational comedy about a New York City pot dealer and his clients, grapples with these questions in “Globo,” the first episode of its second season on HBO. Our dealer (“The Guy”) awakes from a dream about losing his mighty beard, which leads to banter in bed with his girlfriend, Beth. Then she looks at her phone: “Oh, shit. Something bad happened.”

Whatever that something is—we never find out—it’s very bad. Crying-on-the-subway bad. All-black-covers-of-newspapers bad. Text messages pour in for The Guy. His clients need a high. “Think I’m going to go to work early,” he says. “Yeah, that makes sense,” Beth replies, lighting her bong. “Money Money Money” by Bomba Estéreo cues in the soundtrack.

It’s a perfect High Maintenance set-up. The show’s always scanning across the segments of urban life, conveying that each person you see on the street is living through their own little TV dramedy. Now it drops one big, believable plot twist into all those dramedies and watches the fallout. But the results are surprisingly barbed, seeming to mock the privileged types who huddle and dope themselves while the rest of the world carries on or takes action.

The first client we see is blubbering on his couch, a blanket around his shoulders, complaining that his bosses want him to come in today. The sentiment is understandable; the delivery, though, is a bit dramatic, especially given that he’s talking to someone who’s doing work by visiting him. “Did you read the fucking news?” he wails. “It’s a phantasmagoria of despair out there.” The Guy tells him that people are actually being really nice on the street today. The client looks offended: “I’m not able to ‘be in this together’ with anyone until I calm the fuck down.” His request is for a strain that’ll turn his brain “off.”

From there, we follow that client’s roommate, Cody, who’s on a weight-loss journey. He doesn’t seem particularly shaken up by the news, as his main concern seems to be finding a tactful way to share on social media that he has gotten below 275 pounds for the first time since high school. Only one other person shows up to his spin class, and she leaves after checking her phone and seeing some new, terrible development. Afterwards, Cody sees two signs on the street: a demonstrator touting a Desmond Tutu quote—“If you are neutral in times of injustice you have chosen the side of the oppressor”—and a clapboard ad saying “We ALL deserve a FREAKIN’ cookie today.” He buys the cookie.

At a bustling sidewalk café, patrons chit chat about their lives as affected by the news. One woman complains about Brexit disqualifying the U.K. as a place for her to flee to. A group of foreign tourists nervously realize that today is the only day they’ll be able to make it to the 9/11 museum. We hear about the potential effects on some guys’ investments. A woman loudly complains that her therapist was too shaken up to work today, and then without a hint of remorse has the waiter bus a dish of uneaten truffle fries.

Later that night, the buzz at the restaurant turns to the broader political environment—but with fevered conspiracy theories, rhetorical bickering over whether Nazi Germany analogies are acceptable, and air-headed speculation that comedians and artists now have great material to work with.

So: Most of the characters in the episode come across as pretty self-involved. But the broader point is underscored in a few encounters between the Brooklyn bourgeoisie and others. At the café, a homeless man touches a plate of food (after the diners tell him he can have some) before having it grabbed away by the restaurant’s politely peeved hostess. Back in the kitchen, workers wonder aloud in Spanish why the man couldn’t just be allowed to eat the food he’d touched.

Later at night, Beth, who works as a bartender, foists shots on The Guy when he comes to visit, gloats about her impressive haul of tips for the day, and badgers the bar’s server Luiz to stay later and get high. Luiz tries to decline, saying he has a long way to go that night (to East New York, which The Guy has never heard of). Beth pushes, making dicey jokes about his ethnicity. He claims not to take offense, and then embarks on the lengthy journey home, picking up his son on the way.

The episode ends as the diverse riders of a late-night subway car bat around the balloon that Luiz brought for his son. It’s a heart-fluttering moment to finish with, packing the message that life goes on, and that people of different backgrounds can unite. But it also casts into stark relief what came before in the episode: a dearth of communitarianism, and a lot of navel gazing.

The uproarious highlight of “Globo” might, intentionally or unintentionally, be an allegory about self-gratification and out-of-touchness in a time of crisis. At a hotel, a woman and two men wake up after a threesome they had the night before, chat a bit, then dive back in to sex. Their phones are dead; they have no idea about the horrible thing that happened outside. Then The Guy arrives. “Looks like you guys made the best of a shitty day,” he says, to looks of mild incomprehension. “I get it: You only live once. YOLO.”

Once they learn the news, the sexcapade is over. The woman looks down on a vigil outside the hotel. “If only lighting a candle could fucking change anything,” she says, one of a few examples in the episode of the cushy and comfortable gazing at public action—sign-holding or art-making or slogan-slinging—with dazed ambivalence. Then one of the men, on the phone with his panicked mom, passes the phone to the other guy. It dawns on her: She had sex with not “bros” but actual brothers. The look on her face makes for one of the great TV moments of 2018 so far. If you squint, it reads as a sick, meta punchline about a class of people who, during turmoil, drew the blinds and made love to themselves.

High Maintenance is a morally generous, nonjudgmental show for the most part. And the only thematic statement that “Globo” makes, on its surface, is that different people are going to react to horror in different ways. But it feels like there’s an edge here. Emotionally, the episode plays as an almost unmitigated bummer—and that’s not simply because it’s about tragedy, and that’s even in spite of a zany sexual subplot and a cheery ending. For however connected the pot-on-demand population is to the headlines via their phones, they’ve internalized the ethos of “self-care” beyond any productive end. When everyone’s facing the same horror at once, perhaps it’s not time to get high on your own specially delivered supply.