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Despite The Dope, 'High Maintenance' Is About More Than Potheads

Nov 11, 2014
Originally published on November 12, 2014 9:40 am

A guy on a bike making home deliveries in New York City. That might not sound like the most riveting storyline for a show, but this guy is a pot dealer in Brooklyn, and each episode of High Maintenance follows a different transaction, and then some. The show is Vimeo's first foray into original Web TV, and it's been getting raves. The New Yorker calls it "luxurious and twisty and humane, radiating new ideas about storytelling."

Throughout the series, the weed man is referred to as just "the guy" — as in, "Can we call your guy?" or, "I don't have any but I can call my guy." For many of his customers, this nameless delivery dude is a true friend and confidante. His phone is constantly chirping with calls from his delightfully strange and diverse clientele. There's a gruff bird watcher, an anxious assistant buying weed for her boss, a cross-dressing dad with writer's block, and a longtime buyer who's deflated when the dealer tells him the girl he's dating is homeless.

Equal parts poignancy and wry humor, High Maintenance is built around these oddly intimate transactions. Episodes are short vignettes, ranging from six to 15 minutes long, in which the earnest, nonjudgmental marijuana messenger is genuinely cool with most of his clients. Take the reclusive man who lives with his bedridden mother and is obsessed with the actress Helen Hunt. The pot dealer tells him, "I thought about you" when he happened to catch Hunt in the movie Desperate Lives. The reclusive man beams: "1982. Some of her best work," he says.

Somehow it's fitting that the creators, Katja Blichfeld and her husband, Ben Sinclair, can't remember exactly when they came up with the idea for High Maintenance. "Y'know, the exact eureka moment is yet to be remembered," says Sinclair, who also plays the pot dealer.

"I have a vague recollection of being on a bike in a bike lane in south Williamsburg," Blichfeld says, referring to the Brooklyn neighborhood. "Totally sober," she adds.

They claim their process is disorganized, but there is no narrative clutter in the structure of High Maintenance. Blichfeld says she learned the economy of storytelling during her stint as a casting director for 30 Rock — work for which she won an Emmy. Sinclair is an actor and a film editor.

They say they knew they wanted to work together on a series where the stories unfold in real time, and the fact that we don't learn about the weed delivery man's personal life is by design. "We thought it would be interesting if you only knew the guy as much as his customers knew him," Blichfeld says.

Some of those customers are stoners, others are rookies. Weed ties them together, but High Maintenance is not a series about potheads. "We never start: 'This would be a cool situation for a weed delivery,' " Sinclair says. "We start from complex emotions that we are going through, and we try to capture the authenticity of how it feels to feel that way. And then we apply some weed to it."

Sinclair and Blichfeld have been putting out episodes of High Maintenance on Vimeo for a couple of years now. Vimeo is the preferred website of a lot of filmmakers because, unlike YouTube, the site is easy to navigate and, Blichfeld says, the material feels more curated. "It felt like if we put something up there [on Vimeo] it wouldn't just get lost. It wouldn't get buried under, you know, millions of cat videos." ("I love a cat video, don't get me wrong," Sinclair is quick to add.) And Vimeo is returning the love. The company is now funding High Maintenance, making the series its first original production.

Sinclair says he can tell the buzz around the series is building. "When I walk around on the streets now, some people who are doing my character's job will come up to me and be like ... " — Sinclair lowers his voice to a whisper — " 'I'm doing it right now.' "

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

A nameless guy rides around Brooklyn on a bike. That might not sound like a riveting lead character of a new TV show, but critics are raving about this particular web production. New episodes are online today. The New Yorker calls it luxurious and twisty and humane, radiating new ideas about storytelling. NPR's Elizabeth Blair has more on the storyline that drives "High Maintenance."

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Lots of people in Brooklyn know this nameless guy on the bike. He's a pot dealer, so he's always referred to as just the guy.

(SOUNDBITE OF WEB SERIES, "HIGH MAINTENANCE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As character) I don't have any. But I can call my guy and get some.

(SOUNDBITE OF WEB SERIES, "HIGH MAINTENANCE")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (As character) Can we call your guy? My guy's been kind of unreliable lately.

(SOUNDBITE OF WEB SERIES, "HIGH MAINTENANCE")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (As character) Yeah. You know, the weed guy just got here. Yep. Right now.

BLAIR: The guy's phone chirps a lot.

(SOUNDBITE OF WEB SERIES, "HIGH MAINTENANCE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (As character) Very interesting.

BEN SINCLAIR: (As the guy) Yeah. Hold on one second. Hi, Isabelle (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Read some literature.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: (As character) Hey, dude. I'm not at home.

BLAIR: His customers are delightfully diverse. There's a birdwatcher.

(SOUNDBITE OF WEB SERIES, "HIGH MAINTENANCE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (As character) Oh, red-breasted nuthatch - two o'clock.

BLAIR: An anxious assistant who's buying weed for her boss.

(SOUNDBITE OF WEB SERIES, "HIGH MAINTENANCE")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: (As character) I'm a little uncomfortable because this is my first time doing this, and I was expecting, like, a more professional experience.

BLAIR: There's something poignant about the guy's customers, whether it's the novelist with writer's block, the young man who's dating a homeless girl he met online or the reclusive man who lives with his bedridden mother.

(SOUNDBITE OF WEB SERIES, "HIGH MAINTENANCE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (As character) Do you want one pill or two?

BLAIR: The guy is genuinely cool with all of them - well, the nice ones, anyway. He even tries to connect with the reclusive man who's obsessed with the actress Helen Hunt.

(SOUNDBITE OF WEB SERIES, "HIGH MAINTENANCE")

SINCLAIR: (As the guy) Have you seen this Helen Hunt thing where she's jumping out of a window and she's in high school and she's on crank?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: (As character) "Desperate Lives."

SINCLAIR: (As the guy) Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: (As character) 1982. Some of her best work. That's like the early, early stuff.

SINCLAIR: (As the guy) Crazy man.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: (As character) It's really great.

BLAIR: But some of the guy's customers are jerks who try to stiff him.

(SOUNDBITE OF WEB SERIES, "HIGH MAINTENANCE")

SINCLAIR: (As the guy) I'm not going to do anything. Just give it back or...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: (As character) Or what? You're going to call the police?

BLAIR: "High Maintenance" is built around these transactions. Episodes are short vignettes ranging from six to fifteen minutes long. The pot dealer is played by Ben Sinclair, who also co-writes and edits the show with his wife, Katja Blichfeld. Somehow it's fitting that they can't remember exactly when they came up with the idea.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SINCLAIR: It's - you know, the exact Eureka moment is yet to be remembered.

KATJA BLICHFELD: I have a vague recollection of being on a bike in a bike lane in South Williamsburg.

SINCLAIR: Sober.

BLICHFELD: Yeah, totally sober.

BLAIR: Blichfeld is a casting director who won an Emmy for her work on "30 Rock." Sinclair is an actor and film editor. They write every episode. The fact that we don't learn about the weed delivery man's personal life is by design.

BLICHFELD: We thought it would be interesting if you only knew the guy as much as his customers knew him.

BLAIR: Some of his customers are stoners, others are rookies.

(SOUNDBITE OF WEB SERIES, "HIGH MAINTENANCE")

SINCLAIR: (As the guy) I'm sorry I could only role this one joint, ladies. So sorry. You know, you can go down to the West Village, you can get a pipe there. Or, you know, in a pinch you can just carve a pipe out of an apple or something like that.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #6: (As character) An apple?

SINCLAIR: (As the guy): Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #6: (As character) That's so clever. Did you think of that?

SINCLAIR: (As the guy) Oh, no. People do that. That's something people do. All right. You can Google it. I'll see you guys later. You have my phone number.

BLAIR: And even though weed is what ties the episodes together, "High Maintenance" is not a series about potheads.

SINCLAIR: We never start: this would be a cool situation for a weed delivery. We start from complex emotions that we are going through, and we try to capture the authenticity of how it feels to feel that way, and then we apply some weed to it.

BLAIR: Ben Sinclair and Katya Blichfeld have been putting out episodes of "High Maintenance" on Vimeo for a couple of years now. Vimeo is the preferred website of a lot of filmmakers because, unlike YouTube, the site is easy to navigate and Blichfeld says the material feels curated.

BLICHFELD: It felt like if we put something up there it wouldn't just get lost. It wouldn't get buried under, you know, millions of cat videos or whatever is on YouTube.

SINCLAIR: I love a cat video. Don't get me wrong.

BLICHFELD: I mean, who doesn't?

BLAIR: Vimeo is returning the love. The company is now funding "High Maintenance," making the series its first original production. Ben Sinclair says the buzz around the series is building.

SINCLAIR: When I walk around in the streets now, some people just - who are doing my character's job - will come up to me...

BLICHFELD: They'll let him know.

SINCLAIR: ...And be like, I'm doing it right now.

BLICHFELD: It's true.

BLAIR: To see the nameless guy on a bike in Brooklyn, it'll cost viewers about $2-an-episode - a small fee to get "High Maintenance." Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.