'High Maintenance' Is Back and Smoking Out the Competition

Ben_Katja_Kwiatkowski_Pub10
“High Maintenance” creators Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair. Paul Kwiatkowski

Whether or not you're keen on green, our nation is undeniably in the throes of a marijuana revolution. Cultural attitudes and policy have shifted significantly in the past few years; just yesterday, the U.S. surgeon general recognized marijuana as helpful for certain medical conditions, and 23 states have legalized it for medicinal purposes thus far.

For decades, fascination with the cannabis subculture has sparked all sorts of pop culture creations, and the trend has only grown in recent years. But you can toss most of those out with the bong water. Save one: the Web series High Maintenance.

The zeitgeisty show is hinged on a simple, brilliant concept: how New York City's widespread weed-delivery culture forces people to step momentarily into strangers' living spaces and—by association—their lives. An unnamed pot-delivery dealer, known only as "the Guy," must pass through the doorway and into his customers' apartments, which range from the cramped to cavernous, to conduct what on the surface should be just a simple business transaction.

Appropriately, the interactions this fellow has with his people are weirder, and far more human, than what a grocery delivery person would encounter. And because regulars frequently order ganja from the bearded bike messenger, he becomes a constant in their lives, the way an employer or physician might. He seamlessly shifts from being a friendly pot-delivery guy to the voice of reason during a stranger's life crisis (or weed freak-out), a shoulder to cry on or a sort of therapist when people reveal their secrets and woes to him.

The online-only series kicked off several years ago when husband-wife duo Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld, themselves cannabis enthusiasts, began "beating around ideas" for a creative project after they married in 2010. Sinclair, who plays "the Guy" on High Maintenance, comes from an acting background and Blichfeld from a casting background, which earned her an Emmy for her work on 30 Rock. When we meet over halloumi salads and falafel at the East Village's cozy Café Orlin, Blichfeld tells me they were both "too nervous to take on directorial titles at first," and had the help of filmmaker friends for the first couple of episodes. Additionally, they were torn about whether the show had enough weight to become their primary focus instead of a passion project.

Then came the fourth episode "Heidi," a poignant tale about falling for the wrong person, which surprised them and finally made them "get excited on-set," according to Blichfeld. They realized that while each episode could be a self-contained entity, it could have what Sinclair calls the "unnetted cycles between these people." This means that seemingly unrelated characters flit in and out of episodes, with the focus shifting each time on how people live and how they choose to contemplate, debate and self-medicate with pot. As the episodes went on, it became clear that these strangers were interlaced in the concrete jungle, by the personal referral system that connects future clients to "the Guy" and his services.

The anthology model wasn't intentional, though—at least not at first. At the beginning, the couple operated with a tiny budget, and it was just easier to ask for a day of people's time instead of, say, several weeks. "It was based out of necessity, that model. And we just wrote to what was available to us, performers and locations," says Blichfeld. "That's why those first episodes are all just in one space, usually with one other actor."

Now the pair produce, write, direct and edit every episode, in addition to starring in them. (While Sinclair appears in every episode, Blichfeld makes an appearance in the episode "Rachel," which grapples with gendered roles in marriage.)

High Maintenance kicked off with a seedling of an idea, scrapped together with the help of friends and family, and put out on the Internet with fingers crossed. After debuting online in 2013, more than a year after the first four episodes had been filmed, the show saw sky-high popularity almost overnight. Even critics fell under the show's smoky spell and swooned: The New Yorker's Emily Nussbaum wrote that the episodes felt "luxurious and twisty and humane, radiating new ideas about storytelling."

The overwhelming praise came as a surprise to the couple, who thought High Maintenance could very well have joined "the ranks of things that just disappear into the ether," Sinclair says.

What grounds High Maintenance is something that was initially a constraint: Due to limited resources, the series began as shorts typically ranging from five to 12 minutes, instead of a miniseries or feature-length pieces. The approach enables the creators to spin tight yarns consisting of a single moment in time, vignettes enabling the camera to linger over details—a framed picture of Helen Hunt, a cherished bottle of South African olive oil—to sketch the outline of a portrait. You, dear viewer, draw in the rest.

The episodes have gradually been stretching into longer, denser pieces that travel down more gnarled avenues. The longest episode (and the one most revelatory about its enigmatic protagonist) clocks in at a little more than 19 minutes and is making its e-debut today in the series' new "cycle" of episodes.

Following the show's initial development into a cult Web hit, Sinclair and Blichfeld began throwing around ideas with FX about doing a scripted pilot. But something about it didn't feel right for both parties. They parted ways amicably, and the pair were soon approached by Vimeo, the filmmaker-driven video platform. High Maintenance became the first of Vimeo's original "on-demand" programs, with a payment system that sees the couple raking in 90 cents out of every dollar sold of the show. That's a rate virtually unheard-of when compared with, say, the paltry earnings that artists make working with other platforms such as Spotify. The first three pay-per-view episodes were unveiled last November.

The show has always been done at the grassroots level. The couple shot the first episode, starring their sister-in-law, in a hotel room and still rely on the contributions of friends and collaborators. Even now, with Vimeo backing, better resources and bigger stars—like Hannibal Buress and Orange Is the New Black's Yael Stone—it remains intentionally D.I.Y. Part of the simplistic approach, Blichfeld tells me, is a nod to the Danish-bred Dogme 95 movement, a polemical 1995 cinema revolution in which filmmakers drew up a manifesto advocating a return to realistic filmmaking. Dogme 95 creators Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg were committed to using natural lighting, sound produced along with the images, strictly on-location shooting and the rejection of "superficial action." A film central to this movement, Festen (1998), is Blicheld's favorite of all time.

Speaking of reality: While they're not all necessarily autobiographical, the conflicts and stories portrayed in High Maintenance are all rooted in the tales of close friends, or culled from scraps of anecdotes, perhaps overheard conversations on an overcrowded train. There's a new one, for instance, about a couple attempting to turn their lives in a different direction after a move to Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, where Blichfeld and Sinclair live in real life.

Then there's the harrowing tale of a paranoid couple who, one night, hear a fire alarm go off. They tear down the fire escape, only to have a downstairs neighbor yell up at them: it was just some burned food. False alarm. This happened to Sinclair and Blichfeld, too.

Before you ask: Ben Sinclair is not a dealer himself. (The couple tell me they have many friends "in the business," though, who have no doubt helped inform their experience.) Still, that doesn't stop people from stopping the distinctively bearded fellow on the street, whispering if they can cop a nugget. Part of the intrigue stems from the fact that we know next to nothing about "the Guy" and his life. Where does he get his supply from? What does his apartment look like? How does he kick back when he's not wheeling and dealing? The creators decided to keep the specifics to a minimum, but in the new episodes we see more of "the Guy" than ever before, with a particular shroom-laced adventure revealing volumes about him.

There's more on the way. During our conversation, Sinclair and Blichfeld finish each other's sentences, excitedly commenting on the possibility of a separate miniseries, or even features, down the line. Vimeo has already ordered another "cycle" of six episodes, which the two say might focus somewhat on "that real low place you get to in the winter," according to Sinclair. (The first six for Vimeo were all shot during the summer.) But as for right now, Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair are flying high, so to speak, on the success of their innovative show.