Peddling Weed To Those In Need

Do New Yorkers smoke weed? Yes, indeed, and apparently lots of it, though most of the New Yorkers on the new web series “High Maintenance” don’t seem to know where it comes from or how it might have arrived in the city.

But that’s all right. The series derives much of its appeal because it focuses on a closed universe with gravitation pulls of their own. The characters are so wrap up in themselves and their own little worlds that they don’t seem to know much about the world beyond New Jersey, let alone the Mississippi River. California might as well be on another planet. Mendocino County? Where’s that?

“High Maintenance,” which began in November 2012, and that has attracted a loyal following ever since, offers slices of New York life. The characters are almost all young and hip; they’re white and Asian and black and they’re rooted in the subcultures of the city. Nearly all of them have “schticks,” as New Yorkers would say. They’re identified and identifiable by certain unique behaviors, such as smoking dope. They’re urban dope fiends, though nothing really bad happens to them.

At times, “High Maintenance” feels like a study in provincialism, though “study” isn’t exactly the right word to describe the series. The episodes are all short; less than 15 minutes each. Scenes shift rapidly. The dialogue sparkles.

“I have a pretty big clitoris,” a woman says in one memorable episode. Sex underlines many of the stories while the music provides a sense of cool.

The endings are often ironical and surprising. O ’Henry, the master of the short story, would approve. Clearly the writers, Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld, have been listening carefully to the ways that New Yorkers speak, to the rhythms of their conversations and not just to the things they talk about. But they’re not just recording devices that play back what they’ve heard. The dialogue is inventive, witty, and believable, too.

Ben Sinclair himself plays the dope peddler, “The Guy,” who rides around New York on his bicycle to deliver weed to those in need, some more desperate than others. Neither blistering heat nor freezing cold stops him from making his appointed rounds. He ties most of the strings together and gives the series the coherence it needs.

While marijuana isn’t the theme, it’s the glue that links the characters, the plots, the subplots and the divergent scenes that take place on the street, in an apartment, or a café. So far there are 16 episodes. The series has gotten better as it has gone along. The writers, the directors, the producers, and the actors seem to have gained in self-confidence and to have grown into their respective roles. As soon as they realized that they had an appreciative audience they became more inventive; marijuana as a kind of character its took on a more natural and relaxed role. Indeed, the trick of the series is that it takes marijuana for granted as the subtext, and at the same time pushes it in your face. The viewer can almost smell it and then it vanishes suddenly.

The brevity of the episodes is both strength and weakness. Making them longer might undermine the genius of the show and yet making them longer would allow the writers, directors and producers to delve more deeply into the lives of the characters. Still, they manage to make the characters more than one-dimensional and with a great deal of economy. In this case less really is more.

For those who grew up on Cheech and Chong and who enjoy pot comedy, “High Maintenance” ought to be a treat. Viewers can go on line to Vimeo (www.vimeo.com) and rent individual episodes or the whole series. Watch out. They can be addicting. New York takes on a new, strange and wonderful identity. “High Maintenance” provides an escape into a place that feels real and surreal, as real and as surreal as the Emerald Triangle.

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