And we’re back! If you recall from my review of last season’s finale, I wasn’t sure High Maintenance would return. Fortunately, it has, and its season four premiere is as easy-breezy as it has ever been. I love High Maintenance as a midseason show because it has the perfect amount of warmth to keep you from becoming a snowbound crank and it helps usher you into glorious springtime. So, let’s get into it.
Last season, the premiere saw The Guy add a new addition to his life in the form of an Upstate girlfriend. This season, The Guy is without his RV (“Steve RV”) and back on the bike. He soon finds a very friendly, one-eyed dog without an owner and the compulsion to follow him. The Guy being a kind, rational person takes the dog around with him, carrying him in his backpack as he makes his deliveries. The Guy puts up “Found Dog” posters and eventually receives a call from someone who seems to know the dog. We don’t hear the other side of this phone call, which is an interesting choice by director Ben Sinclair, who is also the main actor. However, this minimal amount of exposition and information is in keeping with the spirit of High Maintenance.
The series has never felt the need to over-explain and it has never needed to. With this phone call we get the impression that at the very least, there is no one else to care for this dog right now. So, naturally, The Guy gets a bike sidecar for the dog, so they can continue to be together throughout the day. This is the extent of The Guy’s plot in this episode and, after the last season where he genuinely seemed to be in a darker, uncomfortable headspace, it’s great to see our Guy back in his happy-go-lucky mode. Besides that, dogs are absolutely incredible and I always welcome them on my shows.
The primary character of this episode is Yara (Natalie Woolams-Torres), who is an audiophile who works for This American Life (Hi, Ira Glass and I assume actual staff members of TAL). She attempts to pitch a story of her parents’ flawed marriage, divorce, and remarriage for their “recycling” theme but fails to convince her parents to participate. This coincides with the arrival of her longtime boyfriend Owen (Marcus Raye Pérez) for their anniversary celebration. She orders some weed from the Guy and, before she knows it, she gets in a “thinking out loud” situation where she basically tells her boyfriend that she likes being with him because he’s not as ambitious as her and doesn’t need to be taken care of.
This argument is intriguing on a couple of levels and made interesting because of several details. First, Yara has a mic and recorder ready to go in her closet, and she begins recording the conversation, and then the argument. This gives us great insight into not only her workaholic tendencies, which she mentions, but perhaps also her failure to really be present and recognize the needs of her partner. In this instance, rather than hearing him out and noticing what he’s saying, she’s thinking first of her potential audio project.
Later in the episode, Yara lets her co-workers listen to her recording to judge whether it could be spun into a segment. They critique the recording, as well as the argument, which is quite head-spinning considering the argument is a scripted part of a show we’re watching, as is the critique (I assume?). The fight is eventually deemed not quite whole enough to be a segment on the show, so Yara’s sacrifice of her relationship in that moment for her work proved to be fruitless. But it’s not all dire yet.
The most comedic section of the episode is related to the travails of a Singing Telegram (credited as Arnold, and played by the great Larry Owens) who is having A Day. He’s running late for work, he can’t find a bathroom to use, and no one wants to hear his songs in the awkward public places in which he has to perform them. This montage offers a lot of sharp comedic timing from Owens (“Stop filming me”) and physical comedy with the taxi-change room and the balloon problems. Finally, he finds one café that has an open bathroom and the payoff to his terrible day is fantastic.
Once in the bathroom, Arnold starts tapping his feet to a high-intensity electro-pop rhythm. Then, we’re in an abstract space which soon becomes a metaphor for his bathroom journey. Once he finally manages to drop a deuce, he’s dancing in a rooftop garden and hugging a toilet. Once he emerges from the bathroom, he’s an entirely different person: relaxed, humorous, generous. Sometimes you really do just have to let nature take its course.
Our two primary storylines converge adorably at the end when, after her failed pitch, Arnold shows up at Yara’s office dressed as a broken heart to sing a modified apology song set to the tune of Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You).” It’s quite adorable, and Owen is standing right there when it’s done. It’s great to see a happy ending like this in the premiere episode, as it sets us up for a more positive season.
The ending ends with the reveal that Ira Glass chose Arnold, the Singing Telegram, as an interview subject for his “Recycling” show. As we check in on our characters, we hear Glass’ narration, with its most relevant line referencing “people going deep into the trash, hoping to pull out something good.” I think that is the most relevant expression in this episode for High Maintenance. The characters we meet are often enduring high-stress situations, if not worse, and the show is focused not on their potential misery but on how they are going to use the love around them to get through it. So, we end this episode not with a breakup of a long-term relationship, but with a reunion of two people who now understand each other better.
- This episode was written and directed by Ben Sinclair.
- The credits scene is The Guy, dressed in Arnold’s chicken costume, dancing inside the metaphorical toilet space. The song is “Sans cesse, mon cheri” by Domenique Dumont.
- Sure, couples nicknames can be cute but I was annoyed by how often Yara and Owen called each other “Smoothie.”
- The title “Cycles” both refers to “recycling,” which Ira Glass is all about, and the Guy’s return to (bi)cycles.
- The dog is now known as FOMO.
- Larry Owens (Arnold) is not only the host of the podcast “What Makes U Sing?” but was the star of A Strange Loop, a hit Off-Broadway musical last summer at Playwrights Horizons. You can listen to the cast recording now if you want more of those pipes.
- This episode’s cinematographer is also notable. Ashley Connor has shot several films and episodes that fans of High Maintenance would likely enjoy including Person to Person (2017), Snowy Bing Bongs Across the North Star Combat Zone (2017), Madeline’s Madeline (2018), Jenny Slate: Stage Fright and the “Stories” episode of Broad City.
- Also, what we know about this season: it will be nine episodes and take place over one year.