This episode is named after an illusion that makes it appear as if you’re taking a photo through someone’s bare legs when in actuality you are just using your index finger. It is fitting, then, that the plots of this episode also deal with perception. Mamie (Kathleen Chalfant) is flattered, if slightly confounded, by the way people perceive her; but she is also determined that they perceive her truthfully. Gene (Ken Leung) is a depressed veterinarian who perceives his world through the haze of depression and who suddenly starts perceiving everything differently—at first joyfully, then chaotically—through the shine of psychedelics. They’re both looking for an honest perception of themselves and their lives and take different actions to reach that clarity.
Mamie is a septuagenarian with impeccable style, who works at a small tile store (or interior design store? It doesn’t totally matter), and who is noticed by a friend of her co-worker through Instagram. This friend, Ruby (Michelle Buteau), invites Mamie to come and model for her project, which is one of those “everyone is beautiful” campaigns. No shade intended to those campaigns—although perhaps a little shade, at least from Mamie. Kathleen Chalfant gives a buoyant, subtle performance of this woman who is objectively fabulous but who doesn’t think too much about it and who is surprised by how others see her that way. She takes the modeling gig, and we see that even with all the flattery heaped on her she feels a little out of place among these young Brooklyn artists and models.
Finally, once the posters are plastered in Mamie’s neighborhood, she and her friends get a look at them. She looks great, they all admit—and she does. But later, on her walk back past the posters, she pauses and then goes into a bodega to get some black Sharpie pens. She proceeds to draw on each of her faces wrinkles and blemishes, gleefully scribbling. Even if she maybe felt her age at the photo shoot, she isn’t ashamed of it. This campaign promoting the beauty and individuality of its subjects still Photoshopped out her natural age marks and she is going to rectify that. Mamie is awesome, and this scene just underlines why. She is fully herself and knows that she doesn’t want to be out there presenting herself if it’s a lie. Age doesn’t preclude you from beauty, style or personality—or the reflex to laugh at the sight of a “fingerbutt.”
The second half of the episode is less enjoyable to me, for a couple of reasons that are largely subjective. We follow Gene the vet, who we see is struggling with depression and, while he is in therapy, is definitively not interested in medication to manage it (or as he says, he’s “not feeling’ it”), despite being able to describe in detail how he could imagine killing himself. He already smokes marijuana at least once a day, but the doctor suggests he could try “micro-dosing” something like mushrooms. He gets a chocolate bar from the Guy (you can apparently put any drug into a chocolate bar and that is very attractive, let me tell you), who tells him that he just wants a “nibble of a nibble” to get the positive mood effects of mushrooms, without the overwhelming psychedelic effects that would render him unable to work or go about his day. Micro-dosing has worked for a lot of people, and those who love it really seem to love it, and we can see here the benefits it can have, almost right away. Gene has new energy and a happy-go-lucky attitude. He’s making jokes at work and being communicative and appreciative of his co-workers.
Unfortunately, he didn’t look into the cons of micro-dosing and realizes too late that he shouldn’t be taking those doses every day because his tolerance has built up exponentially. Eventually, he eats almost a whole square of the chocolate bar—not even close to a nibble—and he starts genuinely tripping at work. This is the part of the episode that drags a little, largely because the “oh no, we’re too high” plot is one that’s not particularly enjoyable. It can work well for about a scene before it gets tiring. They do have a lot of fun with the sound design, though. In particular, when Gene is breathing or groaning and it comes out like a supernatural hiss scream.
Because Gene is a vet, there is naturally a lot of sick or dead pets which is also upsetting to me as a recent New Dog Mom who hates imagining her pup grown old. Seeing that cart of black garbage bags full of stiff dead pets adds an especially grim cast to Gene’s drug shenanigans.
And then, on his way out the door—off to go home because he’s way too high—a panicked young girl and her mom come in with the emergency of a cat stuck inside of a tuba. This is a ludicrous plot on paper, but the girl and her mom are genuinely very distraught which makes this sequence very stressful in the way that you can get when you’re too high and everything is just too much. Gene first tries knocking the tuba around to shake the cat out and then pulls it out with forceps but because we barely see the body we know its dead. This is really too much! Gene breaks down, understandably, and we really get some of the heaviness of his job that has likely been weighing on him, adding a very unhelpful topping to his depression. The urge to take something that would make all of this more bearable makes a lot of sense, and it’s easy to see how Gene got a bit hooked to the psychedelics.
And so we fast forward some to the near future when Gene is back in therapy and has decided to take medication for his depression—and now he seems genuinely better without being at risk for getting too high. Gene seems as if he can finally look at his life through clear eyes, which aren’t fogged over by depression or blinded by the momentary joys of psychedelics. He’s found a balance that can make his days easier and allow him to see things as they are—not less, or more, than that. Too bad he can’t get hard anymore.
- This episode is written by both Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair and is directed by Chioke Nassor.
- “Fingerbutt” is the visual trick that High Maintenance regular the Asexual Magician (Avery Monson) shows to Abdullah (Abdullah Saeed), who then shows it to everyone. You take a picture where your finger wrinkles and creases look like a butt and legs. Yes, I tried this and found it very difficult! I can’t get my knuckles out of the frame. (Do I have really short fingers?).
- The first scene and Mamie’s button to it (“Let’s blow this dump”) was perfection. As someone who has worked in retail, I can tell you even if we’re very nice to you, if you’re the last customer before close and you’re up against the clock—we want you gone.
- Oh, hi Ana Fabrega as Gene’s receptionist. Her presence here gives me a great excuse to encourage you to watch At Home with Amy Sedaris on truTV, on which Fabrega appears. If you enjoy the sense of humor of High Maintenance, I think you’ll enjoy Amy Sedaris (and her numerous guest stars).
- The credits scene features Abdullah, the Magician, and the Guy clad in white and standing in front of a “millennial pink” background. They all perform the “punch your own teeth out” illusion, and then it’s made to look like the Magician actually punched his own teeth out. Blood pours out of his mouth, the other guys freak, and that’s that.
- The credits song is “Bubble Gum” by Brigitte Bardot.