Watching High Maintenance make the leap from the internet to HBO feels a little like your favorite local band making it big. Since its first episode in 2012, the weed-centric web series from married couple Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld has stood out from the notoriously overcrowded landscape of DIY television, cobbling together a cult following from the type of hip urban stoners it so lovingly documents. That dedication propelled the show, an anthology of loosely connected stories following a weed dealer known only as the Guy (Sinclair) and his clientele, to a better-funded, equally excellent run as Vimeo’s first original series. Now, it’s been beamed up to the premium-TV mothership, and kicks off a six-episode HBO season Friday.
High Maintenance is a true word-of-mouth success. Like one of the Brooklyn trend-chasers who make up its cast, I, too, can claim to have liked something before it was cool: In the summer of 2013, one of my best friends heard about the show on a podcast. He showed it to another friend, who in turn told me I had to watch this show about New Yorkers smoking weed.
“That sounds dumb,” I said. What followed was the TV equivalent of someone hijacking the aux cord: We watched an episode. And another episode. And 24 hours later, I did the exact same thing to another friend, who’s now an equally rabid fan.
Fandom, particularly the small-time kind, turns a passive consumer into an active evangelist. The phenomenon is hardly new — just ask the Jepsen Hive. What is new, however, is its application to television, a format that doesn’t exactly lend itself to the microniches and buried gems of music or film.
That’s because TV is, as a rule, top-down. What we see is decided for us ahead of time by executives, focus groups, and the millions of dollars in funding they control by a process no outsiders are privy to beyond a handful of trade headlines. That’s the cost of a true mass medium: Even the smallest of television networks has access to millions of eyeballs, and even the worst-rated television show has a viewership the size of a small city. You can make a movie for $10,000 or an album in your bedroom, but there’s no guarantee it’ll actually be seen or heard. Getting that guarantee means going through gatekeepers — and it’s the gatekeepers who take care of the discovery process, not us.
That’s changed somewhat in the era of Peak TV, and there’s always been exceptions to prove the rule. (Everyone has their own Freaks and Geeks story, and it’s almost never “I watched it when it was actually on the air.”) High Maintenance has created a new form of niche fandom; it’s grassroots, organic TV. Sinclair and Blichfeld built their base from scratch on the show’s considerable strengths alone: Sinclair’s warm, wry performance; Blichfeld’s gradual assembly of a deep bench of actors (she’d previously won an Emmy for her casting work on 30 Rock); and their lush, humane, incredibly dense storytelling, often packing seasons’ worth of detail and character development into 15 minutes or less. Seeing that storytelling gradually earn High Maintenance the platform it deserves is downright thrilling, and the intimacy of a small, devoted fandom only enhances the feeling. You don’t just feel happy for a show like this — you feel proud.
The HBO episodes bear this out. Watching them, I got a feeling I’ve never had during the first season of a TV show: This feels like it’s for the fans. Every episode of High Maintenance works as a stand-alone, and watching the web series before the HBO one isn’t even absolutely necessary. And yet, though Blichfeld and Sinclair had the option of starting fresh, roughly half the stories (on average, there are two per episode, preserving the brevity of the original) tie directly back to earlier ones. A bitchy caricature gets surprising, even heartbreaking depth; a beloved con artist keeps scamming her way to the top. High Maintenance knows who its core audience is, and it doesn’t apologize for catering to them.
It’s categorically different from other web-series-turned-actual-series. Where early Broad City feels like a rough draft, all three versions of High Maintenance — self-financed, Vimeo, and HBO — are parts of the same whole. The very first episode was so low-budget it was set almost entirely in a single hotel room; the HBO episodes have the freedom to go full-on experimental, grounding an entire episode in the point of view of a dog. But the sensibility stays consistent. The same thing that brought fans to the show in the first place will bring on the next wave of die-hards. Well, that — and a major-network marketing budget.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.