How 'High Maintenance' Went From Stoner Web Series to HBO's Next Big Thing

Cult online series about an NYC pot dealer makes the jump to the small screen — and still keeps is oddball, surreal buzz

How Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld brought their cult Web series 'High Maintenance' to HBO — and still kept its oddball, surreal stoner-comedy buzz. Credit: Craig Blankenhorn

If you're a weed dealer who delivers all over New York, you meet a lot of folks: cross-dressers, cancer patients, Method actors, agoraphobes, maybe even a couple organizing an orgy or two. Unlike, say, the pizza delivery guy or your friendly neighborhood mail carrier, you get inside people's apartments and get a glimpse of their often messy private lives. Maybe you even toke up with them and they start spilling the beans — on how their boss is an asshole, how they walked in on their boyfriend getting a blow job from someone else, how much they love Helen Hunt's body of work. And maybe, just maybe, the dude who brings you that sweet, sweet Hindu Kush is the perfect tour guide to the eight-million-and-counting stories in the naked city.

That was the idea behind High Maintenance, Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld's cult Web series in which a bearded bike-riding dealer (played by Sinclair) encountered various oddball pot-smokers while making his rounds. Designed as a low-stakes creative outlet for the married couple, the 19 installments they made between 2012 and 2015 featured proper-name titles ("Stevie," "Trixie," "Brad Pitts"), running times averaging between five to 15 minutes, the occasional recognizable face (Hannibal Buress, Downtown Abbey's Dan Stevens, Orange Is the New Black's Yael Stone) and a homemade, DIY vibe. Like a lot of online Webisodes, it was designed to be digested quickly and appealed to a sort of in-the-know urbanite (see Broad City). Unlike its quick-hit streaming peers, however, the series didn't resemble a bunch of sketches so much as an often surreal, oddly touching stoner short-story collection. It felt different than most things on the Internet — and certainly anything you'd find on TV.

But starting September 16th, you'll be able see brand new High Maintenance episodes not on the show's home site or via a paywall-protected Vimeo channel but on HBO, the same premium cable channel that brings you Game of Thrones' epic spectacles. And while it's not surprising that the big leagues would eventually come calling and want to develop a project with Sinclair and Blichfeld, the idea that someone would simply want to keep making these same offbeat, modest little vignettes certainly shocked them. "We had a deal with another network a few years ago," Blichfeld says. "They essentially wanted us to remake and recast the webisodes. But when HBO came to the table, the first thing they said was, 'No remakes. We want to build on what you've done.' "

"And also, 'We don't want to fuck this up,'" Sinclair adds, cracking up. "One executive actually told us, 'I just went to a dinner party with a friend and they told me not to fuck up your show.' After that first experience we'd resigned ourselves to the idea that okay, we're gonna be this independent thing forever and ever. Which was fine. Then HBO introduced this sort of idea that you could have it both ways. The idea was very much: This is a thing that already exists. Let's keep that going."


So yes, fans can rest assured that the cable channel's version will expand upon the High Maintenanceverse, and the Guy remains the collective link between the various stories. Characters such as Stevens' female-couture enthusiast and the obnoxious, drug-gobbling duo known collectively as "Assholes" from the first few Webisodes are back; in fact, that enabling besties' storyline actually takes an extremely poignant turn, proving that the longer, more-fleshed out format genuinely benefits the creators' character studies in miniature. (For those who want to bone up on the original 19 episodes, HBO is streaming the entire run on its HBO NOW site.) And just because the ambition factor has been upped doesn't mean that Sinclair and Blichfeld have made things more palatable to a general audience. In what may be the stand-out episode from the new season, Stone's free-spirit Aussie returns, this time as a dogwalker whose client falls in love with her. Not the pet's owner, mind you — the pooch itself, with the majority of the tale being told through the canine's smitten point of view.

"The genesis of that story is, we wanted to write something about a person who doesn't leave their apartment very much ..." Blichfeld starts.

"... Because of our budget," Sinclair finishes.

"So you sort of went from character to character in the place," she continues. "And then, at one point it reached a section where a dog got left in a cab. Suddenly we thought, 'What if we shot that one almost totally from the POV of a dog? Yeah, that sounds fun.'" (For the record, neither party will confirm nor deny the use of any recreational substances that may or may not have occurred during this brainstorm.) "It also allowed us to do something different from the other scripts we'd been working on, since each episode has its own thumbprint."

"Or paw print," he suggests.

More than anything, however, the couple wanted to retain the funky, tossed-off vibe of their online series and the sense that viewers were tuning in to something scrappy and unique; the idea was never for Sinclair and Blichfeld to make an HBO show, but that the network would embrace their "ongoing art project" as something that fit under their it's-not-TV umbrella. "No one wanted a reboot," Blichfeld says. "And in terms of those first few episodes that we did online, it's basically the same with these new ones — except the show has grown in the same ways that we've grown. Sure, we can get Amy Ryan to do an episode with us, but it's still mostly just us and our friends, making these things that are being shown on a slightly larger platform."

"And we get to actually pay people," Sinclair chimes in. "Which is, you know, a nice change."