High Maintenance and the American New Wave 2.0

Joe Smith


Note:  This post contains discussion about various episodes of High Maintenance.  It’s not Lost or anything, but you might enjoy it more without it being spoiled.  So do yourself a favor and maybe check out a few episodes first (particularly “Heidi”).  

In “Heidi,” the second installment of High Maintenance, the first thing you see is a couple, mid-20s, spooning in bed during the early hours of the morning.  As they stir from sleep, the affection between them is palpable but raw.  Theirs is a relatively new romance.  For nearly five minutes, you watch their affair blossom in a naturalistic way–five minutes of non-sequitur ellipses, pieces of scenes that establish character, emotion, and mood:  building a pillow fort, watching Breaking Bad on a laptop, mid-afternoon sex, creating inside jokes.  It’s like Jim Carrey’s memories from Eternal Sunshine played forwards and without the science-fiction flourishes.  The resulting sequence is charming, affecting, and surprisingly realistic.  You can’t help but be invested in their budding relationship by the time the young woman–Heidi–asks if her beau can call his “guy” for more weed.  He agrees, and Heidi disappears to pick up some groceries.  When his “Guy” arrives, our young romantic can’t help but share how wonderful his past few weeks have been.


At this point, The Guy (Ben Sinclair) reveals that Heidi is actually homeless–she’s been pulling this trick over and over, mooching off unsuspecting bros all over the neighborhood.  The revelation shocks us as much as it does our poor romantic, but you can’t help but burst into laughter.  It’s funny and sad at the same time.  Shortly thereafter, the credits roll.  You sit back and realize that you have just watched as the creators (Sinclair and his wife, Katja Blichfeld) spend most of the running time of “Heidi” setting up a single, albeit hilarious, joke.


In a world where blockbuster movies stick to their Save the Cat beat sheets and TV shows (even the good ones) have to navigate the tricky balance of narrative integrity and fan service, the very structure of “Heidi” puts it at the fringe of the mainstream of American entertainment.  And that doesn’t even take into account the tonal shifts and character development going on in the piece as well.  But for as little as it has in common with mainstream movies and TV, it has even less in common with what most people think of when they think of web video.  The production values have value, the writing is tight, and the performances, from a variety of great character actors, shine.  This is not a YouTube video of you and your friends fucking around with the camcorder to make a fake trailer for The Oregon Trail or lampoon Guidos[ref]

Not now chief, I’m in the zone!


[/ref], this aspires to be something else.  This aspires to be art.


Watching that beginning sequence in “Heidi” immediately suggest a kinship with the likes of Drinking Buddies, Frances Ha, and the other standard-bearers of the American indie cinema, and further exploration into the following episode confirms this. Sinclair, Blichfeld, and their team are telling small stories of characters that feel real with a deft balance of satire and compassion. It’s an impressive enough feat, and one for which–like the indie filmmakers alluded to above–they should be lauded. But what makes High Maintenance so exciting–in a way that Swanberg’s and Baumbach’s and the rest of the Sundance brigade’s feature films cannot be–is that its distribution platform, (the INTERNET!), allows the work to truly innovate and transcend its cinematic predecessors, it allows the filmmakers to make up the rules of storytelling as they see fit.


At first, it might not seem that ground-breaking.  The first few installments (I refuse to call them webisodes) have a pattern:  we meet a New Yorker in pharmacuetical need (and sometimes physical/emotional/spiritual need as well), The Guy shows up, a bit of humor or pathos play out, The Guy moves on.  It’s definitely a formula, and it works to bring you in at first, make you feel comfortable in this world.  But after watching a few (in sequence), things start veering away into new structures and stories.


The most recent entry in High Maintenance pretty much gives up on the formula completely.  Titled “Matilda,” the episode doesn’t even start in New York; it starts in Phoenix, introducing us to a chubby, awkward-but-confident tween girl.  We spend so much time introducing her and her love for useless facts that I was worried she would be the one calling our Guy for some herb.  Thankfully, she is not a customer but his niece, headed to New York City for a visit.  What follows is a really moving depiction of familial love, that dynamic between two people who really care about each other and enjoy spending time with each other.  It’s on the longer side compared to other episodes, but that’s what’s perfect about HM‘s platform–rather than forcing a story into 22 minutes or stretching it out to feature length–they are able to give the story exactly as much time as it needs to have its desired effect.  Further, the concept of the series–that the Guy is a drug dealer–is subverted when we see him trying to shield her from his business while financing her visit with it.  How it “fits” into the larger narrative or world of the series doesn’t matter.  All that matters is the characters, their relationship, and all of those little moments of happiness, frustration, humiliation, and humor that tap into our own experiences.  High Maintenance has been able to take the best things about contemporary television (recurring characters, world-building, episodic narratives) and independent films (leisurely pace, low-concept stories, naturalistic dialogue) and use the openness of their platform to tell small but powerful cinematic stories.




“Matilda” and its place within the context of the High Maintenance narrative reminded me of two different story arcs from two other artists’ projects–“One Man’s Trash” from Girls and “Daddy’s Girlfriend Pts 1 & 2” from Louie.  Though both stories first aired on traditional television platforms, no one would accuse either of their shows to be traditional television shows (in fact, my experience of both shows come from HBOGo and Netflix, respectively).  In “One Man’s Trash,” Lena Dunham forgets about the rest of the titular Girls and tells a self-contained short story about how her character, Hannah, secretly wants the bourgeois fantasy at which she publicly scoffs.  It’s beautifully made with a stand-out performance by Patrick Wilson, but honestly, it would not have been out of place in a particularly high-bar Shorts Festival.  That it is part of a larger series, though, makes the emotional impact of Hannah’s realization that much more rich.


Dunham, though, owes a debt if not directly than spiritually to Louis CK, whose FX show, Louie, has redefined the rules of what can call itself a comedy, at least on television. [ref]

My roommates, originally thinking it would be in line with his riotous stand-up act, long ago stopped watching.  I think it was around the time where, in a flashback, a nun makes 12-year-old Louie pantomime nailing his schoolmate to the crucifix.


[/ref] For the most part, there is no serialization or continuity between the episodes or sometimes even between the segments within a single episode.  Characters appear, disappear, are recast with people of a different race entirely with no explanation.  Backstory from one arc is completely contradicted in another.  The only carryovers, then, are character–primarily “Louie”–and  his worldview. Each segment varies in widely in tone and realism, swinging in a single episode from existential angst to poop jokes, neo-realism to dream sequences.  It works because each storyline is, like “One Man’s Trash” and the High Maintence pieces, a little short film unto itself.  That’s why for “Daddy’s Girlfriend,” he was able to break his own rules, making it a rare two-part arc.[ref]

He did it again later that season with a 3-part story about auditioning for David Letterman’s job.  If you haven’t seen it, get on Netflix and watch it asap.  David Lynch is fucking hilarious as his “coach.”



How could he get away with changing the rules like that?  Because the story he wanted to tell–his meet-cute and first date with an erratic, terrifyingly charming Parker Posey–required 40 minutes, and dammit, it’s his show and he’s going to tell the story he wants in whatever way seems appropriate.  Fair enough.  At the end of the second episode, though, things get even less conventional.  Their date ends abruptly, and though her absence is a plot point for a later episode, there is nothing nearing resolution for their story together.  Why?  Because sometimes that’s the way life is.


And really, even at its most absurd (and believe me, some of the installments get pretty absurd), High Maintenance sticks to that idea–trying to capture, in small doses, some authentic emotional bit of life.  Sometimes the set-up for a joke looks like a set-up.  Sometimes it looks like a romance.  Sometimes it looks a set-up (a fat, schlubby loser calling his pot dealer) turns out to be a really fucking sad moment of human loneliness.  Because sometimes that’s the way life is.


In the late 60s and early 70s, as the last remnants of the Howard Hughes-era studio system lay in ruin, a crop of American film directors started making small, character-driven movies that relished disregard for Hollywood film language and storytelling conventions.  Those films (Bonnie & Clyde, Easy Rider, The Graduate, Mean Streets) and their directors saw an opportunity to fuck with the rules and force cinema to exist on their terms.  It was called “The American New Wave” or “New Hollywood”–and it lasted until the studios, reinvigorated by their success, saw a new formula they liked arise and stopped taking risks.  But the influence (and a few of the directors–Hey Marty!) of this period stuck around and informed much of the great art we’ve had since.


Today, as the rote blockbuster becomes less and less appealing to American audiences[ref]

Obviously, I can’t say the same for overseas viewers, just look at those After Earth numbers.

Back[/ref], and the experimentation of the “Golden Era” of TV begins to zombify, there is an opportunity for a New-New Hollywood.   It’s not just High Maintenance and Louis CK either.  Projects that take risks in the way they tell and share their stories–the way Shane Carruth self-distributed the DIY Upstream Color, the way Megan Ellison has poured her inheritance into financing weird, risky flicks like Spring Breakers, the way Mitch Hurwitz played with the rules of comedy with his choose-your-own-adventure structure for Arrested Development, the way Arcade Fire’s We Used to Wait video makes the viewer and their personal nostalgia an essential part of the art-will pave the way for a new moment in American cinema, helmed by artists and enabled by the low barriers to entry and formlessness of the internet.  An American New Wave 2.0.  Enjoy it now, though, because as soon as the new norms become codified and the studios of the future (Netflix, Amazon, maybe Facebook, definitely Google) find their new Jaws the wave will have crashed back to the shore.  Because sometimes that’s the way life is.

  • Joe Smith

    Went west as a young man, as he’d been told that California was full of whisky, women and gold.

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