How’s this for an opening hook of a TV season? An elderly, unkempt, and out-of-shape male character that viewers have never before seen, stark naked, picks up an ungainly pot of boiling water from a stove. Slowly, awkwardly, with great straining, he carries it up some stairs. Will he drop the pot and scald his genitals? is the main suspense on offer. Not easy viewing.
But fans of the still-brilliant High Maintenance should realize by its third season that this is not a comedy of cruelty—even though the show likes to toy with the human squirm reflex via such horrors as snakes, meth, hospital beds, dance marathons, tracheotomies, and heartbreak. The web series turned HBO comedy about a marijuana delivery dude is a gentle work of sociology, asking who people—all sorts of people—really are, and not harshly judging the answers that it discovers. Thankfully and typically, then, the third season really requires an un-trigger warning (and mild spoiler) of sorts: The naked man does not get scorched.
The showrunners, Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair, are flashing their intentions by holding the camera on an unclothed, jiggling, mortally vulnerable stranger at length. Nakedness is a High Maintenance motif: Sinclair’s dealer (known to us only as “the Guy”) has walked in on nudist clients, mid-coital clients, and in Season 3, a client who compulsively unsheathes her boob at strangers. Such antics fit with the intimate, boundary-crossing nature of the pot-delivery gig. They also fit with the show’s larger empathy—and voyeurism. High Maintenance says gazing is only human.
Increasingly, the voyeurism extends to the Guy himself. Sinclair’s supernaturally likable “beardo” plays a bit role in many of the episodes, a mere glue between pot-smoking characters who take center stage for a few minutes and then recede again. But in dribs and drabs over the years, the show has fulfilled fans’ desires to know more about him. Season 2 unraveled the circumstances of his marriage’s end—circumstances echoing that of the once-coupled Sinclair and Blichfeld—while subjecting him to physical and personal trials. Season 3 opens with the Guy living out of an RV in upstate New York for a summer. More specifically, it opens with him swimming in a river, wearing only skimpy purple shorts.
It’s in such a get-up, on a solo paddleboarding jaunt, that the Guy is glimpsed—ogled?— from afar by a woman (Britt Lower) meditating on a dock with her dog. He watched her without her knowing, earlier in the episode, when she performed an act of generosity for a stranger. Tingles of romance develop, and the will they/won’t they hinges on one party revealing to the other a sensitive bit of biographical information. Love—or at least connection—means sharing something that others don’t get to see.
That’s a theme that holds elsewhere in the season. The premiere’s A plot is a story of mourning that involves the Guy as well as another character, the deceased’s roommate, Cori, who is depicted in long scenes mostly alone, internally working through loss. It’s clear that she shared a lot with the person she’s grieving, and most of those experiences will remain obscured to the viewer—as well as to everyone else in her life. That’s why, of course, those experiences are special.
But before tragedy strikes, Cori—played by Erin Markey in a lived-in depiction of blue-collar crunchiness—also enables a more barbed take on what it means to show someone your unpolished bits. She’s a maid for a home-rental service, and she wearily cleans up the junk left behind by a group of selfie-taking urban types visiting for a wedding. Love, loss, and careless Airbnb guests: They’re heavy themes for a season premiere, and the result is one of the more quiet and soulful High Maintenance episodes to date.
But once the Guy is back in New York City for Episode 2, the show’s mischievous comic energy returns with two stories that dovetail alarmingly well with recent controversies about the potential mental harm of marijuana use. One customer (Gary Richardson) is preposterously absentminded, and his peregrinations have the dark-surrealist touch of Atlanta or a Yorgos Lanthimos movie. What’s going on in his head is imperceptible to the outside world—but High Maintenance lets viewers see how wild one person’s inner life can be.
Another troubling-but-funny client is the aforementioned boob flasher (Catherine Cohen), whose exhibitionism is either bored-yuppy provocation or true pathology. Eventually, she goes on a date with someone who exposes himself even more radically to her, seemingly setting up a sweetly screwed-up romance. But an unsettling final twist complicates that picture. When people drop the clothes of sociability in the wrong places, High Maintenance wisely acknowledges, what’s revealed isn’t pretty.