“OTD” or “Off the Derech” means to go off the path. Specifically the path referred to is the life within an Orthodox Jewish community, but in its own way High Maintenance and the Guy himself went off their usual path this week, to fantastic results.
Rather than following the pattern they have largely been following in the previous weeks, “Derech” is written by the Guy (Ben Sinclair) himself so that we bounce between the two “leads” of the episode rather than separating their stories into definable halves. This rhythm that develops between the disparate scenes following either Baruch (Luzer Twersky) or the unnamed nightclub performer (Darrell Thorne) mimics the energetic rhythm of the night out that these characters end up having. It makes sense in a kind of organic way, and it illustrates perfectly one of the best charms of New York City, and High Maintenance itself, that so many different kinds of people live up against each other and inevitably end up crossing paths in unpredictable, occasionally incredible, and sometimes mundane ways. You are in flux between feeling like a stranger and feeling like part of a community, depending on what neighborhood or room you’re in.
This rhythm and intermingling begins during the title credit sequence. Before it we drop in on Baruch, a young man we learn is “OTD” and who is excited about a shiksa he met last night. His friend, once learning that this girl was asking a lot of questions warns him that this girl either wants to do some kind of documentary on him, or is just trying to convert him over to the “goy world.” Baruch for the time being ignores that remark, and confirms their meet-up later that night. He goes to shave – in front of an upside-down hand mirror over the sink and we seamlessly transition to a different character, in a different apartment, shaving off much more than his facial hair in a much nicer bathroom.
It’s not long before we see the Guy, showing up at the shiksa Anja’s apartment as she texts Baruch in another seamless way to highlight the proximity of these characters tonight. It’s disappointing to learn that she is indeed talking to Baruch because she’s writing a story about “ultra orthodox Jews who have defected from their community,” and for Vice no less. My feelings on that were: ew. Then I realized that this Anja was reminding me a lot of an equally duplicitous character from last season, and then that she is that character. Last time we saw Anja in “Selfie,” she was trying to get some journalism work but was too distracted by her social media presence to ensure that she actually did good journalism. She almost outed the Guy as being a drug dealer, which is why I was surprised to see he was still delivering to her. He does, though, ask a pointed question as to whether this guy she’s meeting knows she’s writing a story. To that, Anja just makes a bunch of nervous noises that say “definitely not.” High Maintenance is usually fairly generous with its view of would-be annoying city hipsters, but it is maybe harshest with Anja in both episodes she has appeared in. The actress Ismenia Mendes is capable enough to give her a hint of an inner struggle, between maybe an ambition to have a certain career and qualms about how she gets the stories she needs, but the show is pretty unwavering in its judgment of her. In this short scene she speaks condescendingly about the defectors and truly seems to see them as fascinating subjects rather than human beings who have very complicated lives.
We see that again when she is at Baruch’s Shabbos party with a group of other OTDs, as well as current members of the Orthodox community who are there in secret. It’s like any other party among friends and friends-of-friends, complete with a loud obnoxious guy and arguments about Drumpf and which minority groups have it hardest. Anja tries to sneak a picture of the group but luckily Baruch stops her, explaining that she can’t take photos because a lot of people here are not “out,” including one half of a lesbian couple who is still married. It’s doubtful if Anja actually realizes the complexity of her subjects yet, as she also asks if “it’s true about the hole in the sheet,” which is a pretty rude and clueless thing to ask whether you’re asking as a journalist or not. Then while Anja is arguing with the aforementioned loud guy, Shmuli, we learn through a subtitled aside to Baruch that Baruch is married. Shmuli mentions that Anja “reminds me of your wife… but at least you don’t have to pay her,” so I’m guessing maybe Baruch and his ex-wife have an arrangement where he can still support her? Trying to research how divorces can happen in the Orthodox community only led me to know that we can’t know exactly what Baruch’s situation is. However, we do know what we should have guessed – that every character on this show has a bigger and longer story behind them.
While that is happening, the Guy is forced to call an Uber to get to his next customer when he finds his bike chained to another bike. Of course, the High Maintenance world being as small as it is, the Guy knows his driver (Abdullah Saeed). We saw him too, way back in a 2013 webisode “Brad Pitts,” but he had a minor role.
The Guy, of course, turns out to be delivering to the dressing room where our hairless performer from earlier is preparing with a few colleagues. This scene feels improvised, and I hope it was, because the conversation in the room realistically and hilariously moves from discussing Nicolas Cage performances – everyone’s shocked the Guy hasn’t seen “Leaving Las Vegas” – into an assessment of Elisabeth Shue’s best performances, to creating a ditty “what are you up to, Elisabeth Shue?” It’s a perfect and simple representation of what real conversations often are – random, digressive, and silly. If the scene wasn’t improvised at all, I’m impressed.
Later in the night Baruch and Anja have decided to ditch the Shabbos party (well, Anja decided) and have naturally ended up at the club our performer is dancing at. Baruch is having a much better time than Anja is, and it isn’t long before she ditches him – well, he kind of ditches her, preferring to stay dancing rather than follow her outside – and they part ways officially when he sees Anja making out with someone else later. It doesn’t matter by that point, as Baruch has likely caught on some to her ulterior motives. He is dancing with, and then chats with, Marina from Moscow. Their conversation is more natural than any interaction we saw between he and Anja, and it’s guileless in a very charming way.
They relocate to a grocery store for some late-night/early morning food, and while eating a bit too quickly, Baruch starts coking and soon passes out. Who happens to be in the grocery store as well? Our performer, still fully decked out in amazing and detailed silver-blue body makeup, just looking for some contacts solution. He hears Marina’s cries for help and rushes to the scene, immediately assessing the situation and ordering the employees to get him supplies for an emergency tracheotomy (!!), because as he informs them, he’s a doctor (!!). He performs it well (and boy whatever they did to get that shot, I’m impressed) and as soon as he sees Baruch is back to breathing, snaps back into normal mode as all around people stare, dumbfounded, at this glittering angel who swooped in out of nowhere. The moment of silence as everyone looks on incredulous is a perfectly timed beat intended to make us laugh, and it works. What it also does is underline an important theme of this episode – and always an underlying message of every High Maintenance episode – that what you see on the surface of someone’s life is not their whole life.
We start to feel as if we know Baruch, or can guess his story, but when we learn that he is or was married, we realize we don’t really know anything. In the same way we think we know this performer, we can guess that he works at the club a lot, when he is suddenly able to coolly perform a small operation, we realize there is a lot we don’t know. We’re given less time with the performer, so I didn’t think we knew much, but then I looked back and thought – maybe we do know more than we thought. We see in the beginning that his apartment is fairly nice, and we also see that he is shaving off a fair amount of body hair on his chest and legs. Body hair takes time to grow, so it is unlikely that he performs at this club, in full costume more than once a week. He might be a full-time doctor, who performs when he can. There are a lot of details from Baruch and this performer’s life dropped throughout their scenes – many not even mentioned here – that only end up telling us a little something about their life. High Maintenance excels at reminding us that everyone is a person, everyone has a story, and we usually don’t know the half of it.
- As mentioned, the episode was written by Ben Sinclair and directed by Shaka King.
- The Guy’s face as he waits for Anja to choose her product is pretty great.
- The episode ends with a song from the best Spotify Discover Weekly playlist I have ever been given – “Shabop Shalom” by Devandra Banhart. The song plays over footage of a club performer luxuriating inside of crescent moon hanging from the ceiling. Love it.
- I love/hate that Baruch “gets a drink” for Marina by finding a drink in the bathroom.
- I too am guilty of not having seen Leaving Las Vegas. But I have seen Bad Lieutenant! (That is: Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, if you’re nasty).
- What is Elisabeth Shue up to? She’s playing the irrelevant wife, and the dead wife. Hmph.