Forty years ago, cannabis culture was Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong smoking dog poop in 1978’s Up in Smoke, or the “tasty waves, cool buds” mentality of Spicoli (Sean Penn), the perpetually baked surfer in 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Those pothead stereotypes were enormously entertaining and supremely dumb, but times have obviously changed. We now live in a country where marijuana is legal for recreational use in nine states and for medical use in 29, plus D.C., and the idea that just one kind of person smokes pot is absurd. (It always was, like saying everyone who smokes tobacco or drinks liquor shares the same specific stereotypes.) But we are still transitioning between legality and social acceptance, and that is the sweet spot for the TV series High Maintenance.
The critically acclaimed HBO series will soon wrap up its second, 10-episode season. Its creators, Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld, chose an anthology format that allows for an expansive universe, encompassing a wide variety of weed smokers—something that Comedy Central’s Broad City, another modern stoner show, can’t quite manage. Each half-hour episode features a different cast of New York City characters, from sparkly House of Yes performers to struggling Brooklyn real estate agents to ex-Hasidic drifters. The one thing they all share—aside from a city—is their weed dealer, “the Guy,” played by the scruffy Sinclair.
Weed is always present but rarely the focus of High Maintenance’s slice-of-life storylines (there are usually two per episode). There’s the occasional “dude, we’re so high” humor, but neither creator was interested in making the next great stoner comedy. “I’ve never seen a Cheech and Chong movie,” said Blichfeld. “Pineapple Express was fun, I guess? Ben and I were more interested in normalizing pot usage, not relegating it to a genre space.”
“In the real world, everybody smokes weed, or has had some interaction with it,” added Sinclair. “We were like, ‘Oh shit, we can make a show about everyone!’”
The characters in High Maintenance smoke pot for a lot of reasons, including fun, escape, creativity and chemotherapy relief. In both seasons, there were episodes that focused on nonsmoking characters, including a dog in Season 1’s standout, “Grandpa.” The poignant Season 2 premiere, “Globo,” hops all over the city after an unspecified terrorist attack. Sometimes we’re with the Guy as he makes deliveries, sometimes not. In one storyline, we stay with the weed customer’s roommate—a nonsmoker—who feels he can’t celebrate his weight loss on Instagram because of the tragedy. Later on in the episode, we follow an immigrant waiter on his late-night subway ride home with his son. One of the show’s welcome surprises is that you’re never sure who the camera will stick with. “We want the viewer to feel like they’re being dropped into a different world every episode,” said Blichfeld.
Sinclair and Blichfeld were married when they came up with the idea for the show. The couple, both heavy weed smokers, “were fascinated by the complicity in letting a stranger, the dealer, into your house,” said Sinclair. “You are both breaking the law. That creates a different sort of intimacy than, say, a pizza delivery guy or a visit from friends.”
“People aren’t washing their dishes before the weed guy comes,” said Blichfeld. “Or weed girl!”
She was an Emmy-winning casting director on 30 Rock at the time and, conveniently, had actor friends at her disposal. Though neither had any previous narrative writing experience, they decided to produce the show for the web. That DIY web series launched in 2012, Vimeo picked up the tab in 2014, and HBO bought it in 2016.
The Guy moves in and out of each episode, dropping off his products by bike and rarely accumulating more than 10 minutes of screen time. For most of the series, we know little about him, other than the empathetic acceptance of whatever he sees of his customers’ lives, no matter how eccentric. One heartbroken artist’s apartment is covered in bones and pickled animals. “Hey, chin up. You’ve got a lot going on for you,” the Guy says, giving him a hug. “You’ve got two ram skulls!”
The first personal fact drops in the Season 1 finale: The Guy lives down the hall from his ex-wife and her new girlfriend (Rebecca Naomi Jones). And then, in the fifth episode of Season 2, “Scromple,” he gets an arc: After a bike accident, he ends up in the hospital, where he’s visited by his ex, played by Kate Lyn Sheil (Lisa Williams of House of Cards ), who’s desperate for a fix. They vape in the hospital bed, eat too much candy and giggle over nonsense jokes—the easy kinship of two people who used to be intimate. It’s sweet and sad and feels remarkably authentic because it is.
Sinclair and Blichfeld ended their six-year marriage on Election Day 2016. Donald Trump’s win, Blichfeld has said, gave her “a sense of urgency to live truthfully” while she still could. In February, Blichfeld publicly came out as gay in a guest column for Vogue. In the piece, she also detailed the extreme pressure of working on the first HBO season of High Maintenance. Though the Season 1 finale was written before the separation, Sinclair said they “were both holding a secret—that we wanted to get out of this romantic situation—but we were afraid that all of the situations around it would melt as well.”
In fact, the creative partnership remained strong, and Season 2 came with a writers’ room and additional directors. “Once we realized that the boat was sturdier than the relationship between the captains,” said Sinclair, “we were able to relax into our new lives.”
That’s when the two decided to do something they’d been attempting for years, even before the breakup: put their real-life relationship on screen. “Scromple,” written by Blichfeld and Rebecca Drysdale (Key and Peele) and directed by Blichfeld and Sinclair, is not a “straight-up re-enactment” of their personal lives, said Blichfeld, but it comes pretty close.
Sinclair was “elated” when he saw the final cut. “Those are our inside jokes. She used to call me ‘Scromple.’ It’s an ideal vision of us getting to a place of kindness and caring.”
Blichfeld found it more bittersweet. “Ben and I live a half a mile from each other, not down the hall, but very close. And we share a car, not a vacuum. But the truest thing is the dynamic. We definitely bonded over a goofy sense of humor and a lot of weed smoking.”
The episode also suggests, for the first time, the darker implications of drug dependency. Sheil’s character, who has recently quit smoking for her girlfriend, breaks into her ex-husband’s apartment desperate for a hit, even scouring his pipes for residue. “That definitely felt true,” Blichfeld said. “I’ve used smoking as a crutch.”
Both she and Sinclair dramatically reduced their marijuana use after the breakup. For Blichfeld, weed was specifically used to dull the anxiety of living in the closet. “When I came out last year, I found myself reaching less and less for pot. Now, it’s back to its original form of usage—a party thing or a way to wind down at the end of the day, rather than doing bong rips first thing in the morning.”
Let’s be clear: These are seasoned stoners who still love weed, with no big regrets. There are no plans to make Season 3 any less dank. “If we don’t make it about weed, then the only constant is my character,” Sinclair pointed out. “And I don’t want to be the main character. The most interesting part of the show is being dropped into any place. Maybe the Guy could die—I don’t know!”