New York City is known for many things—great pizza, glittering skyscrapers, sidewalks crowded with fast–talking business people—but the warmth and friendliness of its residents rarely make the cut. To outsiders, it seems that everyone is always in a rush in New York. They are notoriously pushy, adhering to a code of necessary rudeness to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible. Out–of–towners tend to remark that New York may be a wonderful place to visit, but a difficult place to call home. Movies and television shows that are filmed in New York often do a good job contrasting the pace of the city with the lives of those who inhabit it. New York serves as a backdrop in HBO’s series High Maintenance, which tells the stories of its ordinary people and the way they interact with each other, as well as with the city that they share.
The premise of High Maintenance is a relatively simple one—an anonymous marijuana dealer known as The Guy bikes around New York City delivering his products to a variety of clients, most of which are free—spirited artists, well–to–do professionals, or some intersection of these character archetypes. Each episode gives the viewer a peek into the lives of a handful of these ordinary people who make New York their home. The Guy essentially becomes the looking glass into a world of chaos, but also one of kindness. There are few recurring characters, so High Maintenance does us the service of packaging up its episodes with a heartfelt moment of contemplation or acceptance, like wrapping a surprisingly thoughtful gift.
The New York City of High Maintenance is warm and lively, where the sun always seems to be shining just right so that their streets look the very best. Even the darker moments that the show explores are met with optimism. In its second season, the High Maintenance creators devote an episode to the morning after the 2016 election, throughout which the weight of the world seems to be collapsing on top of everyone. The show ends with a father and his young son riding the subway late at night, the boy holding a green balloon, free from the worries that are running through his father’s head. The balloon comes loose from the boy’s hand, gently tapping a nearby stranger. Instead of being annoyed by the balloon as it drifts about the subway car, the riders make a game of keeping the balloon afloat. The sweetness of this simple moment contrasts greatly with the pessimism discussed throughout the episode, and is a device that makes High Maintenance so appealing. Perhaps this isn’t the real New York—a city like any other that is full of harsh realities. But it is an ideal one that celebrates the generous spirit of people who choose to be kind to their neighbors.
The Guy, who is played by Ben Sinclair (also one of the creators of the show), may be only a stranger in the grand machine High Maintenance builds for us. However, he is pivotal: his gentle demeanor and refreshing honesty embody everything we’d want a good neighbor to be. He finds joy in the little things, connects to people across from every walk of life, and seeks only respect, never conflict. Despite his work in an arguably shady line of business, we learn that The Guy is only a means through which we gain access to stories of people learning how to coexist. High Maintenance successfully finds a way to place its narratives effortlessly in the swirling chaos of its setting.