“Have You Seen an Asexual Magician?”: The Creators of ‘High Maintenance’ on How to Balance Art and Commerce

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High Maintenance, the web series created by couple Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld, returns today for its “fifth cycle” on Vimeo, and becomes Vimeo On Demand’s first original series. After fielding offers and exploring possible development deals (FX was involved, for one), Sinclair and Blichfeld have decided to stay “handmade,” producing the current set of videos with Vimeo’s funding. In return, the six episodes that make up the show’s fifth and forthcoming sixth cycles will be available as a year-long rental on the site, for $7.99.

High Maintenance debuted on Vimeo in 2012, charming critics, TV fans, and stoners alike as it followed “The Guy,” a nameless weed dealer played with deadpan sincerity by Sinclair, as he delivered weed to a rotating cast of New Yorkers. It’s a great premise for storytelling, but what High Maintenance does with this idea is something special.

In the span of each six-to-15-minute episode — depending on what the story needs — High Maintenance draws people’s lives with a stunning efficiency, so that we get to know these characters by seeing the rhythm of their days, the way they arrange their stuff in their living space, and, eventually, how they interact with “The Guy.” The results can be hilarious or heartbreaking, with notes of vulnerability and urban loneliness; it’s hard not to compare the show’s succinct perfection to a short story by Chekhov. But there’s something like that on the edges.

Last night at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, a sold-out, warmly appreciative crowd — including former Downton Abbey actor Dan Stevens, who appeared in the episode “Rachel” — watched High Maintenance‘s greatest hits, which numbered seven episodes, plus one from the newest cycle.

As a web series, High Maintenance is usually a personal, intimate viewing experience, something you watch curled around your laptop, but it played well on the big screen, garnering big laughs and happy clapping before the best-known episodes (“Heidi,” about a homeless hipster drifter and starring comedy up-and-comer Greta Lee, was clearly a favorite), but also a pensive hum before the heartbreaking episodes (“Helen”). The new entry, “Genghis,” about an asexual magician struggling through a summer as a teaching assistant in public school, struck a poignant, human note, while also finding room for funny throwaway lines like, “I thought doing that fat girl monologue from Louie was a good idea.”

In a Q&A session after the screening, Sinclair and Blichfeld noted how the series has changed over the past two years, with the credits for the first produced episode numbering very few people, to the latest work, which has a full crew. They talked about their process: “We don’t start from a place of limitations,” Sinclair said. “We want something that feels true and authentic. Have we not seen this before in regular media, but have you seen it in the real world? Have you seen an asexual magician?” They talked about how they flirted with FX, where they had a development deal, but ultimately stayed with Vimeo. “We don’t really want it to scale larger. I think it would lose what people respond to. Our hands are in every part of it.”

It’s fascinating that a couple created the show together, and they were frank about the struggles they’ve had balancing the personal and professional. “Our relationship is really strong,” Blichfeld said. “But only because it’s been hacked away like a rosebush,” Sinclair added. “Make sure you have other things going on as well,” Blichfeld replied, as the ultimate advice on how to balance art and love.

While the new Vimeo deal is a grand experiment, Sinclair and Blichfeld feel like they could produce three High Maintenance episodes a year for the rest of their lives. “It has to have some breath around it,” Sinclair said. “I know it’s cool to be an artist and all, but it’s cool to be a human being too. You need time to experience life.”