We're used to New York City-based shows featuring a gang of laughing, happy people. On Friends, doors were never locked and neighbors had an open invitation to come on over. Everyone always had someplace to go and people to see. And, when all else failed, a coffee shop where everybody knew their names to stop by. The NYC depicted in the web series High Maintenance is the polar opposite of that warm, inviting sitcom world. It's also a lot closer to the real one.
The city of customers to which a nameless drug dealer delivers is populated by cross-dressing fathers, asexual magicians, and homeless couchsurfers disguised as the cool girl hipster. Although their dealer is the only tie that binds them, this is not a show about marijuana. It's a dissection of human essence — what makes us the same, what makes us different, and the demon known as loneliness we all fight.
High Maintenance, which was co-created by husband-and-wife team Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld, debuted in 2012. It's freewheeling structure — or really, complete lack thereof — quickly made the web series a word-of-mouth and critical favorite. Episodes can range from five to 20-plus minutes. Characters may or may not return. The only tenuous connection between each episode is a nameless pot dealer (played by Sinclair) who acts as armchair therapist, token friend, and even matchmaker to his clients. Some episodes are laugh-out-loud funny. Others depict a desperation and solitude so acute you can feel it through the screen.
A new crop of High Maintenance episodes debuts today. Viewers will recognize some of the characters from seasons past, and they also might notice a slightly more polished look. The series is now being funded by Vimeo as part of the platform's new foray into original, on-demand programming. Despite their new corporate backers, however, Sinclair and Blichfeld are keeping High Maintenance as homegrown and close to the vest as always.
We ventured to Vimeo's Chelsea offices to talk to the funny and endearing couple about bringing the humans of New York to the small screen, the dealer-customer relationship, and keeping things small when they're actually getting pretty big.
Why do you think people overshare so much with their dealer?
Katja: "Well, I mean, you don’t clean up before your weed dealer comes. I’m sure there are some people who do, and I know a couple of them. But, most people in my experience — and in our personal experience — don’t necessarily put their best [foot] forward to begin with. You’re both participating in an illegal transaction, so you immediately have that connection with that person."
Ben: "Sometimes people tend to overcome the awkwardness of letting this stranger into the apartment by being like, 'You want something to eat? You want something to drink? What’s going on in your life?' I went on a ride-along with my friend who runs a collective that does delivery in L.A. I jumped out of his Celica convertible when I got to the place, and I brought like this little paper bag full of weed. The guy answered the door, and his dog was up on me. He was just wearing boxers and running around his apartment trying to find his wallet, telling me that he just came from a vacation where he got very sick. He told me all of this stuff, and I was like, 'Whoa.'"
Ben's character is very involved in his clients' lives. Do you think the series is having an effect on the delivery industry?
Katja: "I've experienced dealers like this guy, and we know one that's very similar to the guy in terms of how much he gets involved in various people’s lives."
Ben: "'Cause he goes there every week."
Katja: "One of our friends was was delivered to recently, and the delivery person said to him (because they know that we work on the show), 'You guys, I think that High Maintenance is causing people to start tipping.' People who maybe weren’t using services like that a lot before are taking their cues from our show. So, that idea was put in a lot of people’s heads. That’s something I’ve heard from a dealer: That now more people tip, and they cite the show, which puts pressure on me because I don’t always have money to tip."
How much does one tip?
Katja: "I give $5 sometimes."
I like the idea explored in the third new episode, "Ruth," that the dealer knows enough about his clients to set two of them up.
Ben: "One of our friends works for a service, and he was telling us about a couple that he used to deliver to. They split up, and he kept delivering to them both. They would ask questions about each other. He told us that story a long time ago. Then, we were like 'Oh, so let’s do the opposite. Let’s see if we can bring two people together.' He’s like 'Yeah, use it.' All the stories are kind of formed like that."
The characters in the series feel like real people we've all met. How do you create them?
Ben: "It's just us with a different skin suit. It's our emotions, I would say — the way we feel about certain things."
Katja: "We're observers. I’m always eavesdropping, and I can’t help it...It’s just sort of instinctual to listen."
You had [Downton Abbey star] Dan Stevens on the show. Have any other celebrities approached you now that it's taking off?
Katja: "I so firmly believe that having an unknown face does facilitate losing yourself in a story because you’re not so distracted by, ‘Oh, that’s so-and-so. Look how they look and how they’re acting.' You’re just so aware of it...I think that would just be what’s going on in people’s minds. So, when we do it, like with Hannibal [Buress], we really wanted to use him because we were such big fans of his stand-up."
Ben: "He’s the only person that I’ve ever approached that I didn't know."
Katja: "We could not pass that up. He wasn’t so big that it would be distracting to the world. The stipulation to use him was that he could play a version of himself. With Dan [Stevens], the reason we went along with that was because he had actually physically changed so much since the time that people had seen him. So, we felt like we could get away with that. And, he was playing a role that he hadn’t really played before."
Ben: "He's a nice dad and he's a writer, also."
Katja: "And a sweet husband."
Ben: "That is what we wanted to capture. For example, let’s say James Franco thinks we want to use him. We don't know who James Franco is. We know what the projection is of what James Franco is, and we know what he and his people are putting out there. But, him as a human being we don’t know. We really love to write for people who we authentically know and have spent time with and can say for sure like, this is the essence of this person, and they’re lending their essence to us."
Now for the $64,000 question: What are you smoking in the episodes?
Ben: "It's a smoking blend purchased at an apothecary in Ditmas Park called Sacred Vibes."
Katja: "It's called 'Chillax.'"
Ben: "Yes, Chillax Smoking Blend. It's mugwort, lavender, catnip, and rosehips."
Does it get you high?
Ben: "It doesn’t get you high, but I can tell you that I’ve probably smoked a pound of it by now. It does make you feel very relaxed. It’s chillax. It’s funny when actors smoke that, and they’re used to stage cigarettes or whatever, and then they smoke that. Something does happen to them. It’s not being stoned, but something definitely happens. It's the lack of oxygen to your brain."
Does everyone ask you to smoke now?
Katja: "They did before, but not as much as you would think...We're actually trying to stop smoking weed."
Ben: "We are absolutely functional stoners, but the act of smoking itself is, like...I would feel bad to become a proponent of that because I don't think it’s good for you."
Katja: "Yeah, it’s not healthy."
Ben: "Eating it, vaporizing it... I’m glad people are finding healthier ways to take it. As far as weed as a lifestyle, it’s a big part of our lifestyle."
Katja: "It doesn’t define us, but it's definitely really up in there."
Ben: "This is a bar city, but we don’t like going to bars and yelling. We would rather chill with 10 people on a nice terrace and eat Trader Joe’s snacks."
Katja: "With a really great playlist."
So, where do things go from here?
Ben: "I think if this project isn't overhyped, and if it’s not super saturated, and if it’s not overdone, then it could last a very long time. But, it needs to have a very gentle touch and care."
Katja: "If the quality’s not there, then people are going to start hating on us. It has to just be a few here and a few there in order to be what it is."