There’s a lot to love in this week’s High Maintenance, mostly because they’re giving us so much to start with. I’m pretty certain that this is the first episode of the series to give us three distinct stories, and they manage to give each character their own arc within a small time-frame, without feeling too rushed. I wish we had revisited the first two characters later, but that’s more of a personal wish. I don’t think the episode as a whole suffers from lack of closure in that regard. We know from their years at Vimeo, before HBO, that they can deliver a satisfying story in five minutes if they choose to, and that skill is a lot harder to master than Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair have made it seem all these years.
This week, the original writing and directing duo are the ones holding the reigns and they deliver classic High Maintenance short stories with their distinct, easygoing brand of humor. There is a through-line of technology and social media, of being made visible because of it, feeling a little disconnected from “real life” because of it, feeling vulnerable or unsafe, and generally using it as a tool for self-documentation. The conflicts offered up are fairly standard issues writers and thinkers like to discuss regarding social media, but Blichfeld and Sinclair manage to include a certain amount of fresh humor, perspective or context that make the scenarios feel less stale.
The first segment follows Jasper (Neimah Djourabchi), a computer programmer who is required to work on his laptop all day for his job but who, in doing so, is constantly compelled to browse his social media and news sites. We get a lengthy, but relatable, montage following him through his day and through his media consumption – beginning with a slightly jarring inclusion of a real Invisibilia podcast episode (for a split second I thought, “Did I turn on the wrong thing? I was on the HBO app, right?”), and following him through his attempt to cut back on his Internet usage. This hilariously includes him deciding to read 1984 (I suppose to really help himself commit to less tech), and using an app that blocks him from accessing all of his fun websites. In maybe the best joke of the episode, Jasper uses a flip phone to text his friend. We see the usual graphic of his text, displayed as smartphone texts so often are in narrative TV and film now, but boxier and older like his “dumb phone” screen. We also see that it takes him a little longer than it should to send his message, and without any AutoCorrect function it is riddled with mistakes. His friend responds with “WTF?” and a few emojis Jasper can’t see as anything other than empty squares. As someone who had a “dumb phone” up to 2014, I remember those squares well.
Jasper calls upon the Guy (who thought Jasper was “strokin’ out” based on his muddled text), who suggests that he try a “tech-free” evening one night a week like some of his other clients have done. The Guy mentions their use of candles, which Jasper really takes to heart, and the last we see of him is him lying in bed as a tall candlestick droops off of the kitchen counter and promptly starts a fire. I’m choosing to believe Jasper is fine and has a working smoke alarm (High Maintenance isn’t that dark), but it’s certainly a bold punch-line. This guy is damned with or without tech in his life.
The next segment takes the “Internet is controlling my life” feeling a bit further. Raina (Kate Berlant) is a relatively small-time comedian who tweeted something about a certain president that does not go over well with a certain section of Twitter that is also able to find her cell number and post it so that she can receive hateful texts directly to her personal phone. We follow her over a few days as the texts – all the usual, banal and unimaginative but extremely vitriolic “you should kill yourself” messages – stream in and she gets increasingly concerned about her safety. She sits with a knife as she counts waitressing tips alone at work, she installs better apartment door locks, and she decides not to go to her scheduled comedy show. She eventually resorts to recording a video message apologizing for her tweet, and posting it to Twitter. She pretty quickly loses a lot of followers, and she just as quickly deletes her video message. I think we’re meant to feel that those unfollows were from her fans who liked her anti-president message and were disappointed in her for folding under pressure (although “pressure” is an understatement). In the end she decides to stick to her guns after all, which is probably best, however difficult. She’s a woman on the Internet, so the trolls were going to come after her for something sooner or later – she might as well retain her right to voice her true opinions.
The final third of the episode follows Gloria (Alex Auder) as she attempts to beat a world record for continuous dancing, and she necessarily has to document that journey on video. She starts her dancing at a party in her backyard, with lots of friends joining in and cooking and having a ball. Everyone’s excited and supportive, but they soon fall by the wayside as time passes. Eventually, Gloria is all alone, with days left to beat the record. Here we get a long sequence, mostly shot on her GoPro, which features her crumbling under the mental and physical exhaustion. It’s funny, dark and a little worrisome at parts. We’re made to consider the state of someone’s mind after days of constant movement, no sleep and on top of that isolation. It’s a little frightening!
On the last day, Gloria’s boyfriend, Jim (who is a returning character, last seen in last season’s “Tick,” enjoying retirement and day raves), sends the Guy to check on Gloria and offer her something soothing. He sells her something and while she seems sort of okay at first, she soon trails off into nonsense. Then all at once she and The Guy seem to realize that she’s in bad shape and she still has 24 hours left – she’s not gonna make it. She lets out an anguished “Nooooo!” and the episode ends. It’s a wail that can sum up the plight of each of the episode’s main characters, as they’re all locked into their online life, presence or public commitment to break a record. It’s a great button to this efficiently-paced, funny, and very relatable episode.
- The credits scene offers some relief, as we see Gloria’s friends return to carry her through her last dancing hours (the Guy is there too!).
- The title comes from Internet-speak, gawd how old are you?
- I loved the Guy interrupting the “plot” of the second segment to ask Raina and her friends (oh, hi, Aparna Nancherla): “I don’t want to interrupt, but is anyone gonna actually buy weed?” This is a great kind of jab at the show itself, as most of what we see is not people buying weed, or often even smoking. What’s this show about anyway?
- The Guy has one of those awkward “I love you” slip-ups while on the phone with Raina. Those are the worst, and I’ve evaded them in life so far but my time is probably coming.
- “Actually, I’m a fucking animal… [and] you can put that in your article.” This is Gloria explaining how she’s going to endure her dance marathon.
- I feel like the Guy had a kind of darkness hanging around him for the first two-thirds of the season, but after “Googie” I think we’re really seeing him enjoy himself and walk lighter now. I’m happy for him!
- Next week is the season finale (“nooo!”), but we get the solar eclipse, John Gallagher Jr. (I can’t be the only fan here), and the return of the ex-gf Beth!