Brow Beat

In High Maintenance’s Season 4 Premiere, New Yorkers Self-Medicate the Pain of Trump’s Victory

Ben Sinclair (The Guy) in High Maintenance.
Ben Sinclair (The Guy) in High Maintenance.
HBO

In the first episode of its new season, the gentle satire High Maintenance turns its all-seeing eye on the devastating day after Donald Trump’s election, and demonstrates that, nope, it’s not too soon to laugh about it. The fantastic anthology show, a gorgeous, best-in-class web series before it was picked up and expanded by HBO, is a compendium of New Yorkers linked by a genial weed dealer known only as “the Guy” (Ben Sinclair, who co-created the series with Katja Blichfeld). For a show about stoners, High Maintenance is clear-eyed. It coolly dissects Guy’s hip, artsy Brooklyn clientele, lighting them beautifully while exposing all their pretensions, foibles, and charms on such a crushing day.

Last season, the first in which episodes were 30 minutes long, began to explore the Guy’s private life. In one, told from the perspective of a dog, the dog fell in love with Beth (Yael Stone), a woman the Guy began dating. In another, we learned that the Guy’s ex, who still lived down the hall, had become a lesbian—a plot twist written before Sinclair and Blichfeld broke up and she came out. The new season begins with the Guy’s dream (come back to it after you’ve watched Episode 5, it has Easter eggs), an uneasy sequence set at a hair salon, from which he wakes to a nightmare. He turns on his phones and discovers that something awful has happened.

The first time I watched the episode, titled “Globo,” I thought the bad news was a terrorist attack. In my mind, the election results are so connected to the middle of the night that the suggestion someone could wake up in the morning not already dreading its outcome threw me off. But though the episode scans well enough if the bad thing that happened was some kind of terrorist attack, it scans perfectly if the bad thing was Trump, even if he’s never explicitly mentioned.

After getting the news, the Guy heads out to help the borough of Brooklyn self-medicate its way through this particular trauma, giving Sinclair and Blichfeld an opportunity to show off their impeccable observational skills. There is hardly any conversation from the immediate aftermath of the election that is not showcased here, lightly teased for its ubiquity and shallowness. The Guy’s first client is in histrionic tears about the “phantasmagoria of despair” that is the world. The Guy counters that it’s actually pretty nice out there, a “post-9/11 we’re-all-in-this-together mood.”

As the camera moves down the street, into a locker room, through a brunch spot, past a bar, we hear fragments of conversation: “Comedy’s gonna be so great the next few years”; “Post-Brexit, where in the world is safe and sane anymore?”; “The middle class and poor are fucked”; “Were German people being dramatic when Nazis came into power?” A birthday gathering is deemed a disaster; tourists elect to visit the 9/11 museum despite the timing; a few people head out to protests. It has the feel of an eerie snow day, everyone unsettled but still behaving like the moneyed, bourgeois New Yorkers they are, talking over mussels, workouts, and whiskey shots, between tourists and business meetings. A woman, gossiping about the bad news, grimaces and dismissively tells a busboy, “I didn’t know they were truffle fries.”

All of this is observed in passing, but a few characters feature in extended sequences: a formerly overweight man struggling with whether he can post pictures of his exercise regimen on social media on this day of all days; a woman and two men holed up in a swanky hotel room, their phones dead, who don’t know what has happened; and a Hispanic man, the aforementioned busboy, who follows that shift up with one in a bar, and late at night, makes his way home on the subway. It’s this last character, an immigrant and father, who gives the episode its lovely finish, another quintessentially New York experience: a communal moment on the subway, when instead of talking so much, instead of quibbling over our fears and anxieties, strangers lift each other’s spirits just by being kind, a heartfelt ending to a sour day.