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Arts & Life

'High Maintenance' Creators Say Their Show Isn't About Marijuana


The show "High Maintenance" is now in its third season on HBO. One of the creators Ben Sinclair stars as a Brooklyn weed dealer. The show is not about weed though. The dealer, known only as The Guy, is a storytelling device. He lets us inside people's homes, allowing us to see their most intimate moments, as my co-host Audie Cornish explains.

AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: Each episode means new clients with new stories.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Hey.

CORNISH: A depressed comic, a feminist meetup...


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) He just has, like, a really intense male look.

CORNISH: ...A group of swinging professionals.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) I think that's a belly dancer.

CORNISH: ...An agoraphobe.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) What? You're going out?

CORNISH: ...To name a few. Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld created "High Maintenance" as a low-budget web series when they were a married couple. They've since separated but remain creative partners. And they say the initial constraints of budget and actors' limited availability helped define the show's structure.

KATJA BLICHFELD: Because in the beginning, we weren't paying anybody to participate in the production of this.

CORNISH: So no one would stick around for more than an episode.

BLICHFELD: Yeah, you got it. So we thought it just felt better to ask people for one-day commitments. And in doing so, we also realized we were setting ourselves up for just having a lot more freedom narratively.

CORNISH: Right, because every time The Guy opens the door, you're just, like, in a completely different world, which, you know, in New York, I feel like makes so much sense. I mean, did you know there were communities that you're like, I'd really like to write about X; I'd really like to write about Y?

BEN SINCLAIR: Definitely. I had the pleasure of being a flower delivery person while we were making the first episodes of the show. And one of my favorite parts of that job was just that I got to go into people's homes to, you know, deliver something. And it was just - there was so much character information just on the walls of their apartments. And we would just kind of brainstorm from there.

CORNISH: I find it interesting that you have this experience delivering flowers, but that's not what the show is about.

SINCLAIR: Yes, it is.


CORNISH: Fair, fair. But you go with the weed model. And can you talk about why?

BLICHFELD: I mean, I remember when Ben was doing these deliveries and the way that people behaved while he was there I think was very telling - like, oh, interesting, people can really let their guard down.

CORNISH: Yeah, but this is different cause people think they're kind of buddies with their weed guy.

BLICHFELD: Well, that's the fun part about it.

CORNISH: Right. You don't think you're buddies with the florist.

SINCLAIR: It's true. But I feel like we recognize that the weed delivery, played by me, could be an avenue for people to get very vulnerable in this complicit situation of, like, I need weed. It's illegal. You're here. It's illegal.

CORNISH: We're in this together.

SINCLAIR: We're in this together, exactly.

CORNISH: Right. I think if I've ever heard a criticism of the show, there is this idea you have - in a way, you're just seeing kind of privilege at work. Like, no one's worried about the police coming. Nobody's worried about getting in trouble - right? - even the dealer himself.


BLICHFELD: Well, that's less now though, I think, and that is something we were happy about - that the tide is turning at least in New York. It's not quite the same environment that it was when we started.

SINCLAIR: And I - we do take that criticism with more than a grain of salt. But - wait. Is that the right way to say it? No, we take that criticism very seriously.

BLICHFELD: Yeah, more than a grain - the whole shaker.

SINCLAIR: Taking it with a grain of salt would mean, like, don't fully listen to it. We actually do pay attention to that criticism. But we don't want this to be a show about weed. And once you start talking about the illegality of it...

BLICHFELD: The business of it.

SINCLAIR: ...The business of it, it starts to be a show about weed. And we're more interested in it being a show about something that might prompt a person to smoke weed - an anxiety, a neurosis, a loneliness.

BLICHFELD: Right. And I think if anything, the legalization that's been happening and the breaking down of the stigmas around it, I think, has been helpful to us expanding our viewership because I think a lot of people might have been more turned off a few years back at our premise. And now it's like, oh, I'm curious.

SINCLAIR: People are still turned off by our premise.

BLICHFELD: For sure.

SINCLAIR: The thing I see online most about our show is, oh, I wasn't going to watch this because I thought it was just about weed. But I'm watching it, and it actually is very good.

CORNISH: (Laughter) Well, I guess there's a little bit of - there's a stigma, so to speak, of, like, weed culture and humor in pop culture - right? - in movies and things like that - kind of going back to the "Cheech And Chong," which I know is very beloved. But, yeah, I think there's a segment of the population that's like, eh, not for me.

BLICHFELD: Not for us - like, we haven't watched those films. It's kind of - I mean, that's just true. I have never seen a "Cheech And Chong" film. And maybe I've seen, like, "Pineapple Express." I feel like that's the most stoner thing I've ever watched.

CORNISH: Ben Sinclair, I want to go back to a point you made about what the show is really about because I'm often struck by how many people in an episode do exhibit anxiety or loneliness specifically - including The Guy, which is the character that you play. And I want to talk about the season three premiere, where there's a funeral scene for an older hippie named Berg. He lives upstate.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) He never judged me for anything.

CORNISH: And the guy is so moved to speak. He opens his mouth and tries to, and, like, he gets cut off. And everyone starts singing.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Now, I don't hard know her.

CORNISH: I felt like my heart just, like, fell on my chest. It was like, he wants to talk. He wants you to feel how much of this is about loneliness? He's a guy surrounded by people.

SINCLAIR: Well, I mean, New York is very encapsulating of that feeling of being alone but being surrounded by people. I think that because of technology and how capitalism has really caught on in the world, I think we're all just thinking that we are an island, and I think human beings are meant to be together.

CORNISH: Where does The Guy go from here? I mean, you've taken him out of New York. You've told us a little bit about him, which in the early parts of the series - right? - he was an enigma. So how are you thinking about going forward?

BLICHFELD: I think this season, you'll see - if you keep watching, that we are sort of setting up a shift for him of some kind. What that will be remains to be seen.

SINCLAIR: I think because in the past years that Katja and I have had so many huge life changes - like, I do feel - and I hope I'm not speaking out of school - that while we were married, we had all of these wonderful things coming to us, but I think we both felt alone somehow. We both felt, you know, that feeling as you're getting older, and, like, you've arrived at a certain point that you always have been trying to accomplish. And you still feel not full.

And I feel like The Guy is trying to - in the words of one of the eulogizers at Berg's funeral - have a very full cup. And there's more to life than making money, which is what this show about as a weed dealer. It's not about dealing weed. It's about having a human experience. And with this tide of legalization coming to New York that seems very strong, it seems like we have two parallel lines of the popular opinion of weed - and The Guy is kind of searching - that are really converging into an interesting point of view.

CORNISH: Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld, they're the creators of the HBO series "High Maintenance." It's now in its third season. Thank you to you both.

SINCLAIR: Thanks, Audie.

BLICHFELD: Thank you.

SINCLAIR: And thank you, Ari.


JOAN JETT AND THE BLACKHEARTS: (Singing) Crimson and clover, over and over. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.