The Surprising, Unorthodox Media Criticism of High Maintenance
What HBO's Show about a Weed Delivery Guy Says about Ethics in Journalism
High Maintenance is not supposed to be a depressing show. The series, which follows The Guy (played by co-creator Ben Sinclair) as he bikes around Brooklyn delivering marijuana to an ever-growing collection of characters, is a comedy—and a humanist one at that. Brooklyn in the world of High Maintenance is full of hardworking people; people who just want to find some respite in a joint; people who, even when their jobs or partners or friends get them down, are always looking ahead to what’s next. It’s a world where a man can experiment with wearing his wife’s clothing, where the worst thing that can happen to a codependent, toxic friendship is its reaffirmation, where over time, people grow into themselves. This is a huge part of the appeal of the show, which tends to focus on small-scale problems as stand-ins for bigger issues—without any real threat of serious consequences. After all, The Guy always has another client.
This season, however—the show’s second on HBO—has introduced a new degree of precarity into its characters’ lives. The season premiere has its fair share of comedy (including the network’s most unsettling incest joke this side of Game of Thrones), but it also takes place on what appears to be November 9, 2016, the day after the presidential election, and the humor exists beside a general sense of panic and terror. In another episode, The Guy gets into a bike accident and spends time in the hospital, where he is cared for by his ex-wife, now in an unsteady relationship with a woman. (The gravity of this plot is heightened by its autobiographical quality; it was based on the end of Sinclair’s marriage to High Maintenance co-creator Katja Blichfeld.) Many of the show’s stoner characters were always using weed to cope, but their habits increasingly feel like self-medication.
“Derech,” the fourth episode of this season, is perhaps its most unsettling—not because it features the most serious consequences, but because it stealthily sticks a knife into the ribs of its own audience. “Derech” mostly follows Baruch, an ex-Orthodox Jew drawn into the secular nightlife of his native Williamsburg. Played with painful innocence by Luzer Twersky, himself a former member of a Hasidic community, Baruch spends his day combing through Craigslist ads for Kosher jobs, staying with a friend while he gets back on his feet, and striving to make a new life for himself. And he has a date lined up—with a beautiful Shiksa woman, no less.
When Baruch excitedly tells his friend about his date, he is met with dismissiveness: “She wants to tell your story in a documentary movie, or she wants to bring you into the goy world.” His friend is right: Shockingly enough, the woman Baruch has connected with is Anja, a recurring
Here, Anja is working in a real sub-genre of journalism dedicated to depicting the lives of ex-Orthodox people, compelling for their difference but also close enough to the experiences of people who read glossy legacy magazines that they can easily be made into subjects. “Derech,” specifically, comes on the heels of Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s 2017
“Many of the show’s stoner characters were always using weed to cope, but their habits increasingly feel like self-medication.”
Brodesser-Akner, herself a former Orthodox Jew, treats these realities with the care they deserve, but High Maintenance goes out of its way to tell you that Anja will not. In a conversation with The Guy—his only appearance in this plot—she describes the OTD Jews as “super fascinating,” emphasizing the word in a way that is intended to drive a winking wedge between them and people like her and The Guy. He responds with characteristic bemused frustration: “Do
High Maintenance, like many of television’s successful recent comedies with a dramatic edge, relies heavily on a sentimental idea of universality—particularly for an audience that shares certain cultural signifiers with, say, The Guy. (It does, after all, air on HBO.) When one of the OTD Jews tells Anja “I don’t touch women,” we are meant to be briefly shocked, until he bursts into laughter, letting her (and us) know he was just kidding. Baruch and his friends drink Coronas and try to find their way, just like us. (Even if two of them are secretly married lesbians.) But, like the audience, Anja asks a lot of uncomfortable questions about false stereotypes, like that Orthodox Jews have sex through a hole in the bedsheet—things that she could have learned by doing even the slightest amount of research. It’s not that Anja is a bad journalist
By contrast, Brodesser-Akner’s story focuses largely on the spiritual questions of being OTD, including what it means to be a good person, the commitments these people have to their former communities, and what they should do with their lives now that they’ve left their previously small, well-defined worlds. High Maintenance is, of course, not a magazine profile. It doesn’t contain an extended history of Footsteps or other OTD communities like it—and if it did, such a clunky exposition might detract from the potential artistic effect of the show. But it does have a perspective. In this case, that everyone is worthy of the same considered attention because they are
How do we understand Anja, then? She is the primary subject of the earlier High Maintenance episode “Selfie,” which finds her struggling to create the appearance of a successful, influential life by taking selfies with clothes she doesn’t buy, copies of My Brilliant Friend she isn’t really reading, and generally inviting herself as a target for the Bow Wow challenge, so named for the time the rapper lied about flying in a private jet on Instagram. At one point in “Selfie,” she interviews The Guy about his job—it’s unclear where the interview is for, since she hasn’t yet gotten her job at VICE—and eventually begins asking him hostile questions about the role race plays in his success (The Guy is white) under the guise of “intersectionality.” She’s right to ask him about it, but she’s also being an asshole, which is to say that she’s being insincere and abusing the trust The Guy has placed in her by agreeing to do the interview, looking for a sensational angle rather than a true one. (It would be one thing if she had simply asked him to do the interview, but she lures him into it by saying he’ll only need to give her some funny anecdotes.) Later, she posts photos of The Guy’s weed cases on her Instagram, against his explicit wishes. (Journalism!)
The charitable read of Anja’s actions here and in “Derech”—and it does seem like High Maintenance wants there to be one—is that, at bottom, she, too, is trying to survive. Her commitment to her own social media presence is of the type that is frequently criticised by stodgy “experts” in a tone that ignores the genuine pressure placed on younger people in creative fields whose continued access to work and payment depends on their nebulous “brand.” Does Anja wind up writing for VICE without her Instagram? (Leaving aside the question of whether VICE, whose news show itself airs alongside High Maintenance on HBO, is a place she should want to work.) From a certain vantage point, she’s perfect for the job.
Anja is a compressed diamond formed by the pressures of the last decade’s media economy; in particular, those that gave rise to the personal essay boom. Her career aspiration, and the life she leads to feed it, is the result of a combination of factors: outlets needing more and more attention-grabbing content to justify ad buyers’ continued business, a lack of professional training or institutional interest in ensuring that new hires learn on the job, an increased reliance on detached, isolated freelancers, startlingly easy access to publishing tools, the use of sharing as a way of identifying with a writer rather than their work, and the creeping, dreadful sense that, in this environment, the easiest, most effective way for young people—and especially young women—to establish a career is to sell the juiciest parts of their lives to content factories for a few thousand clicks and $50. This may not be a fair characterization of the best of
“Anja is a compressed diamond formed by the pressures of the last decade’s media economy.”
Still, there’s an obvious benefit to Anja’s approach: a certain raw quality, the impression that because the writing is being presented as so immediate and sketched-out that it must be more authentic, a more up-front representation of the world. There’s a reason this style is popular enough to parody. High Maintenance is attempting to capture in its own stab at authenticity in this episode, which it does largely by criticizing the sloppiness of Anja’s work and casting Twersky, himself an OTD Jew, as the central character. The extended shots of the daylit apartment, the Coronas at the OTD meeting, the focus on the cosmetic facsimile of the Orthodox community: These are the same details that you might expect to be in Anja’s eventual piece, but they’re deployed here in service of an “accurate” read of daily life for people from all backgrounds, rather than (or in addition to) a sensational one. At its best,
“One day, the years of living the lives they wanted would outnumber the years they’d lived the lives they didn’t want,” Brodesser-Akner writes of the OTD Jews searching for a new path. It’s a motto for the characters of High Maintenance if ever there was one. But that’s not true for everyone, and this season’s darker tone finds the show coming up against the boundaries of its approach. On
At the end of “Derech,” Baruch is given the chance to continue trying to find the life he wants. He follows Anja to Brooklyn’s House of Yes, where he dances with a Russian woman, buys a tuna bagel at a bodega, chokes on it, and is eventually saved by a drag queen who is also a doctor. And, of course, he smokes weed. In keeping with the overall ethos of High Maintenance, Anja and the OTD Jews end up finding common ground over weed—as long as it’s “kusher.” The show’s humanist sentimentality is only rarely effectively turned against its audience—and even when it is, it still relies on our willingness to, occasionally, hit the bong.