'High Maintenance' Creators Say Their Show Isn't About Marijuana NPR's Audie Cornish speaks with Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld, the co-creators of the TV series High Maintenance. The show is now in its third season on HBO.
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'High Maintenance' Creators Say Their Show Isn't About Marijuana

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'High Maintenance' Creators Say Their Show Isn't About Marijuana

'High Maintenance' Creators Say Their Show Isn't About Marijuana

'High Maintenance' Creators Say Their Show Isn't About Marijuana

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/690822682/690822683" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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NPR's Audie Cornish speaks with Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld, the co-creators of the TV series High Maintenance. The show is now in its third season on HBO.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The show "High Maintenance" is now in its third season on HBO. One of the creators Ben Sinclair stars as a Brooklyn weed dealer. The show is not about weed though. The dealer, known only as The Guy, is a storytelling device. He lets us inside people's homes, allowing us to see their most intimate moments, as my co-host Audie Cornish explains.

AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: Each episode means new clients with new stories.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HIGH MAINTENANCE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Hey.

CORNISH: A depressed comic, a feminist meetup...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HIGH MAINTENANCE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) He just has, like, a really intense male look.

CORNISH: ...A group of swinging professionals.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HIGH MAINTENANCE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) I think that's a belly dancer.

CORNISH: ...An agoraphobe.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIGH MAINTENANCE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) What? You're going out?

CORNISH: ...To name a few. Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld created "High Maintenance" as a low-budget web series when they were a married couple. They've since separated but remain creative partners. And they say the initial constraints of budget and actors' limited availability helped define the show's structure.

KATJA BLICHFELD: Because in the beginning, we weren't paying anybody to participate in the production of this.

CORNISH: So no one would stick around for more than an episode.

BLICHFELD: Yeah, you got it. So we thought it just felt better to ask people for one-day commitments. And in doing so, we also realized we were setting ourselves up for just having a lot more freedom narratively.

CORNISH: Right, because every time The Guy opens the door, you're just, like, in a completely different world, which, you know, in New York, I feel like makes so much sense. I mean, did you know there were communities that you're like, I'd really like to write about X; I'd really like to write about Y?

BEN SINCLAIR: Definitely. I had the pleasure of being a flower delivery person while we were making the first episodes of the show. And one of my favorite parts of that job was just that I got to go into people's homes to, you know, deliver something. And it was just - there was so much character information just on the walls of their apartments. And we would just kind of brainstorm from there.

CORNISH: I find it interesting that you have this experience delivering flowers, but that's not what the show is about.

SINCLAIR: Yes, it is.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: Fair, fair. But you go with the weed model. And can you talk about why?

BLICHFELD: I mean, I remember when Ben was doing these deliveries and the way that people behaved while he was there I think was very telling - like, oh, interesting, people can really let their guard down.

CORNISH: Yeah, but this is different cause people think they're kind of buddies with their weed guy.

BLICHFELD: Well, that's the fun part about it.

CORNISH: Right. You don't think you're buddies with the florist.

SINCLAIR: It's true. But I feel like we recognize that the weed delivery, played by me, could be an avenue for people to get very vulnerable in this complicit situation of, like, I need weed. It's illegal. You're here. It's illegal.

CORNISH: We're in this together.

SINCLAIR: We're in this together, exactly.

CORNISH: Right. I think if I've ever heard a criticism of the show, there is this idea you have - in a way, you're just seeing kind of privilege at work. Like, no one's worried about the police coming. Nobody's worried about getting in trouble - right? - even the dealer himself.

SINCLAIR: Yes.

BLICHFELD: Well, that's less now though, I think, and that is something we were happy about - that the tide is turning at least in New York. It's not quite the same environment that it was when we started.

SINCLAIR: And I - we do take that criticism with more than a grain of salt. But - wait. Is that the right way to say it? No, we take that criticism very seriously.

BLICHFELD: Yeah, more than a grain - the whole shaker.

SINCLAIR: Taking it with a grain of salt would mean, like, don't fully listen to it. We actually do pay attention to that criticism. But we don't want this to be a show about weed. And once you start talking about the illegality of it...

BLICHFELD: The business of it.

SINCLAIR: ...The business of it, it starts to be a show about weed. And we're more interested in it being a show about something that might prompt a person to smoke weed - an anxiety, a neurosis, a loneliness.

BLICHFELD: Right. And I think if anything, the legalization that's been happening and the breaking down of the stigmas around it, I think, has been helpful to us expanding our viewership because I think a lot of people might have been more turned off a few years back at our premise. And now it's like, oh, I'm curious.

SINCLAIR: People are still turned off by our premise.

BLICHFELD: For sure.

SINCLAIR: The thing I see online most about our show is, oh, I wasn't going to watch this because I thought it was just about weed. But I'm watching it, and it actually is very good.

CORNISH: (Laughter) Well, I guess there's a little bit of - there's a stigma, so to speak, of, like, weed culture and humor in pop culture - right? - in movies and things like that - kind of going back to the "Cheech And Chong," which I know is very beloved. But, yeah, I think there's a segment of the population that's like, eh, not for me.

BLICHFELD: Not for us - like, we haven't watched those films. It's kind of - I mean, that's just true. I have never seen a "Cheech And Chong" film. And maybe I've seen, like, "Pineapple Express." I feel like that's the most stoner thing I've ever watched.

CORNISH: Ben Sinclair, I want to go back to a point you made about what the show is really about because I'm often struck by how many people in an episode do exhibit anxiety or loneliness specifically - including The Guy, which is the character that you play. And I want to talk about the season three premiere, where there's a funeral scene for an older hippie named Berg. He lives upstate.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HIGH MAINTENANCE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) He never judged me for anything.

CORNISH: And the guy is so moved to speak. He opens his mouth and tries to, and, like, he gets cut off. And everyone starts singing.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HIGH MAINTENANCE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Now, I don't hard know her.

CORNISH: I felt like my heart just, like, fell on my chest. It was like, he wants to talk. He wants you to feel how much of this is about loneliness? He's a guy surrounded by people.

SINCLAIR: Well, I mean, New York is very encapsulating of that feeling of being alone but being surrounded by people. I think that because of technology and how capitalism has really caught on in the world, I think we're all just thinking that we are an island, and I think human beings are meant to be together.

CORNISH: Where does The Guy go from here? I mean, you've taken him out of New York. You've told us a little bit about him, which in the early parts of the series - right? - he was an enigma. So how are you thinking about going forward?

BLICHFELD: I think this season, you'll see - if you keep watching, that we are sort of setting up a shift for him of some kind. What that will be remains to be seen.

SINCLAIR: I think because in the past years that Katja and I have had so many huge life changes - like, I do feel - and I hope I'm not speaking out of school - that while we were married, we had all of these wonderful things coming to us, but I think we both felt alone somehow. We both felt, you know, that feeling as you're getting older, and, like, you've arrived at a certain point that you always have been trying to accomplish. And you still feel not full.

And I feel like The Guy is trying to - in the words of one of the eulogizers at Berg's funeral - have a very full cup. And there's more to life than making money, which is what this show about as a weed dealer. It's not about dealing weed. It's about having a human experience. And with this tide of legalization coming to New York that seems very strong, it seems like we have two parallel lines of the popular opinion of weed - and The Guy is kind of searching - that are really converging into an interesting point of view.

CORNISH: Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld, they're the creators of the HBO series "High Maintenance." It's now in its third season. Thank you to you both.

SINCLAIR: Thanks, Audie.

BLICHFELD: Thank you.

SINCLAIR: And thank you, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CRIMSON AND CLOVER")

JOAN JETT AND THE BLACKHEARTS: (Singing) Crimson and clover, over and over.

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