The HBO version of High Maintenance began with a minor adjustment. In the premiere, we met The Guy, a mellow, nameless New Yorker who bikes around the city delivering weed, as he consulted with his old-school barber. “I’m thinking just a little off the top,” he said. “Nothing too drastic.”
The exchange served as a subtle message to fans of the original Web series: Yes, High Maintenance creators Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair (a husband-and-wife team until they split on election night 2016) had brought their short-form Vimeo sensation to premium cable. But, aside from the expanded, half-hour format, the show would remain essentially the same. Blichfeld and Sinclair, who also stars as The Guy, kept that promise. The first season offered a familiar collage of cannabis enthusiasts, from a social-media-addicted extrovert to an agoraphobic man who makes art with LaCroix cans, all portrayed with remarkable empathy.
The Guy is back in the barber’s chair in the opening scene of Season 2, but this time something drastic does happen. He requests “the usual” but from a new hairdresser, while a dance party rages in a back room and a man digs through a catering tray of spaghetti, and what he gets is his signature beard shorn off. This is, of course, a nightmare. Even so, when The Guy and his girlfriend, Beth (Yael Stone), wake up and check their phones, they find that the real world has suddenly become as surreal as the dream. “Oh shit. Something bad happened,” says Beth. Then she loads up her bong.
Welcome to New York in the Trump era, where a DJ spins house music while the things that make the locals who they are keep getting torn from them. No other TV series captures daily life in the city like High Maintenance, which profiles so many of its residents, and from so many different communities, without judgment. It survived the move to HBO intact, only to be diverted from “the usual” by the chaos that took hold after its first season ended in October of 2016.
The script for the season premiere, “Globo,” elegantly avoids identifying the cataclysmic event whose aftermath dominates the episode. There are clues that it is set on the day after the election: Over mussels, a man tells his companion she’s lucky to have a British passport. At the bar where Beth works, one blowhard opines that at least comedy is going to be great for the next few years. There are also moments in the first episode when it seems like New Yorkers are responding to a terrorist attack. But it doesn’t matter whether Blichfeld and Sinclair, who wrote and directed “Globo,” are referencing the election or some fictional catastrophe or both. The confusion only highlights the sheer number of awful surprises we’ve woken up to since High Maintenance last aired. An episode that connects the show’s typical intimate character studies with glimpses of depressing birthday parties, silent subway rides, and strangers treating one another delicately becomes a panorama of collective mourning. I was not in New York on 9/11, but I’d been living there for 11 years by November 9, 2016, the day after 81 percent of New York City residents voted against Trump, and it looked and sounded just like “Globo.”