Anyone living in New York or a similarly densely-populated city has experienced the disturbing realization that you’ve stopped viewing strangers as people and have instead begun perceiving them as mere sacks of flesh standing between you and whatever it is you are trying to achieve in a given moment. Maybe it hits you one evening when all you want is to ride the subway home at the end of a long day, without having someone’s armpit in your face, but the L train is packed, or when you’re trying to get to your appointment with the shrink on time, but the tourists in front of you won’t stop taking selfies with their big dumb selfie sticks. Maybe it’s that moment when you’re about to reach for the last bag of dried mangoes at Trader Joe’s, but people won’t stop slamming their little carts into you as you attempt to cross in front of them, so some other mango-hungry guy gets there first and makes off with them. Whatever your personal breaking point with the human race is, if you live in a place like New York for long enough, you’ll inevitably reach it, because cities, I am convinced, have a special way of making us loathe one another.
This is, of course, not a healthy way to move about the world, which is why I’m grateful to High Maintenance for helping me remember that my fellow New Yorkers are people, too. For the uninitiated, High Maintenance wrapped up its second season with HBO last Friday. But before it got the prestige cable treatment, it was a cult hit on Vimeo. It’s created, produced and written by former couple Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair, who ended their marriage last year but still work together on every aspect of the show.
Amidst an increasingly crowded TV landscape filled with big-budget thrillers, in-your-face comedies and prestige dramas with A-list casts, you’d be forgiven for having overlooked High Maintenance when searching for something to binge-watch. But what it lacks in flash, it more than makes up for in empathy. Yes, empathy! That old thing. This is a show that has immense empathy for its characters, who come from all walks of city life—they’re students and teachers, busboys and cancer patients, party girls and crossdressers, all tenuously connected through The Guy, an otherwise unnamed marijuana delivery man played by Sinclair, who serves as the closest thing the show has to a protagonist. It is also, somehow, able to awaken a similar breed of empathy in its viewers, and not just for the characters whose lives we watch play out on screen, but for their real-life counterparts: the people we see everyday on the subway and at Trader Joe’s, with their lives and their families and their doctor’s appointments and their all-too-familiar dried mango cravings. The point-of-view of High Maintenance manages to transcend its fictional world, seep into reality and shift viewers' perceptions. It is, to reference a joke made in season one, its own kind of “urban empathy training.”
The show achieves this not necessarily by showing us the trials and traumas of its characters— though there’s plenty of that, too—but by revealing their coping mechanisms. For a narrative ostensibly about weed (something widely considered an excellent coping mechanism) this might sound obvious. But the weed is just a way for The Guy, and by proxy, the audience, to gain access to these characters. In the High Maintenance universe—just as, I suspect, in real life—people get a lot more creative with their ways of dealing. There's still a lot of pot being smoked, but it takes a back seat to some much weirder shit.
During last week’s episode, for example, we meet a woman named Gloria in the midst of her attempt to break the world record for continuous dancing. The world record for continuous dancing is, apparently, five whole days. She begins her mission with a party in the yard outside her apartment, surrounded by friends, but ends it alone—but for The Guy, of course—strung out and sleep-deprived in a piss-covered leotard. Why, exactly, she’s decided to undertake such a mission is never really answered, but it’s certainly not not the kind of thing a person does in order to escape reality.
In another episode, the HBO series premiere, Blichfield and Sinclair examine the unhealthy, codependent relationship between mean girl Lainey and her gay BFF Max. The friendship is clearly a way for Max to avoid dealing with his own problems or developing his own identity, as he's forever preoccupied with Lainey's. In an unfortunate twist, when he attempts to extricate himself from the friendship, he ends up suffering an emotional breakdown, after trying meth in order to fit in with a group of new acquaintances.
It’s partially because the characters are so realistically drawn—sometimes to the point of being painful—that we can’t help but see ourselves and the people we know in them. Similarly, their coping mechanisms often look like our own; and while it can be difficult to recognize our traumas in those of other people, the behaviors they spawn are often easier to spot. Admittedly, most of us are not becoming addicted to crystal meth in order to escape a bad friend or staying up for six days to complete a dancing marathon. But whether it’s the stay-at-home dad who deals with his writer’s block by trying on his wife’s designer clothes or the cute hipster who sleeps around to avoid being homeless, there are pieces of all of us in each of these characters.
High Maintenance certainly isn’t the only show to offer up characters that look, talk and behave like people we regularly encounter, nor is it the first to create portraits of beautifully damaged New Yorkers. Yet it is unique in that the lens through which we see its version of New York is one of near-constant empathy: The Guy, by dint of the show's slice-of-life, vignette-style structure, is inherently selfless, sacrificing his own story for the sake of others. He is the protagonist, but he's really just a witness, there to give credence to the everyday battles of everyday people. And that's where the "urban empathy training" comes in: by teaching us to feel deeply and empathetically for people we've only watched for a matter of minutes, it opens us up to the possibility of doing that in real life, too. Suddenly, the brief encounters we have at a party or while ordering our soy lattes seem more meaningful and human. While other shows ask us to devote hours to developing relationships with their characters, High Maintenance demands we feel for its numerous denizens at the pace of city life. It presents us with a constellation of characters, unrelated to each other or a central narrative, and begs us to care.
In this way, the show is perhaps most impactful when The Guy disappears altogether, as in the first episode of the second season, when we learn that an unspecified horrible event has transpired. From what we gather, it’s somewhere on the awful scale between the election of Donald Trump and 9/11, and we're privy to the coping mechanisms of many people at once, from the guy who refuses to leave his apartment (“it’s a phantasmagoria of despair out there!”), to the people talking about leaving the country, to the bartender getting wasted on shots. At the end of it all, after a long day of bussing tables, a man picks up his young daughter from a family member’s apartment and they embark on the long subway ride out to East New York. He brought her a balloon from the restaurant, which she accidentally lets go of on the train. Soon, a few strangers experiencing private despair on a late-night train are transformed into people smiling and laughing as the balloon is batted back and forth to the delight of the child. It sounds insanely corny, but it’s stuff like this that reminds us how to live together, even when there are so many factors—cramped subways, finite packages of dried mangoes, global terrorism—that threaten to tear us apart.