High Maintenance: weed dealer anthology is a perfect escape – and keeps getting better

Jared Richards

In our new series Stream Team, Guardian Australia’s arts writers dig out their favourite hidden gems of streaming to help you while away some isolated hours.

High Maintenance isn’t the most obvious Covid-19 comfort watch. As an anthology series about varying New York stoners, its episodes laugh (and yes, sometimes cry) at the largely unknowable ways the city’s millions are all interconnected – and right now, that idea is much more terrifying than it is funny.

But after catching up on the show’s fourth season – currently airing on Foxtel Go, direct from HBO – I was surprised to find it radiates more warmth than ever before.

Created by now ex-husband and wife duo Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld, High Maintenance began as a minuscule budget web series in 2012, before moving over to cable in 2016. Loosely based off Sinclair’s own experiences, it sees a happy-go-lucky dealer (played by Sinclair) cycle through Brooklyn and Manhattan, weaving in and out of people’s lives, known only as “The Guy” – ie, “Can you text the guy?”

Each episode focuses on different clients, ranging from overworked single mothers to insufferable Brooklynite creatives, as well as agoraphobics and an American Sign Language interpreter who is deep into a multi-level marketing scam.

Every client is united by their use of weed as some form of self-medication, and High Maintenance explores why without imposing a moral in the process. Occasionally characters – or nods to past episodes – will pop up again, though it’s far-flung from the Marvel crossovers we’re used to. Instead, they’re often unsubstantial yet memorable.

Wherever we land, The Guy’s endearingly awkward kindness remains at the heart of the show: he and High Maintenance both have a natural empathy for each person they meet, willing to follow them down the rabbit hole even if there’s little resolution.

In one scene, for instance, The Guy struggles to lie about liking a portrait his dentist painted of his one-eyed dog, offering free weed as forgiveness. If that sounds overly twee, the show balances out the cute moments with careful character studies, resisting an all-out parody of its Brooklynite bubble while still twisting the knife.

Related: New Girl: screwball comedy gets funnier and smarter – and is best when binged

Even after it moved to the first home of prestige TV, High Maintenance has, ironically, stayed grounded. Originally filmed on a $1,000-an-episode budget, the show continues to favour indie-naturalism and deceptively simple dialogue. Even the odd cameo from the likes of Lena Dunham or Ira Glass come off as just another part of the absurdity of everyday life rather than HBO pulling strings.

Sure, Martha Stewart’s sudden appearance was jaw-dropping. But the show shares her spotlight with the episode’s other plot line, about an ill, debt-ridden woman taking socialist redistribution into her own hands by stealing nice packages from her husband’s work. Without labouring the point, the episode makes clear that both celebrity and poverty are ridiculous (and compromising) realities.

High Maintenance isn’t the typical binge watch. There’s no overarching plot to encourage churning through episodes, or gorgeous cast to obsess or pine over as they love, hate and have sex with each other. But it’s become a great comfort while I’ve been locked inside because it exists in a different world from our own, and champions the kinds of connections we’re devoid of right now: the usually ephemeral traces of each other that land as a byproduct from squeezing millions into a city.

Right now, we’ve cut that mundane magic by necessity. High Maintenance reminds us that those sometimes serendipitous, sometimes embarrassing moments will return. For better or worse; they’re out of our control.

• High Maintenance streams on Foxtel Go, with seasons one to three also available to rent on iTunes. The original web series isn’t readily available in Australia