Bikes on Reels: Binge Biking through High Maintenance

For more than 100 years we’ve been riding bikes and going to the movies. In this new dandy series we examine how two of the world’s most noted pastimes intersect. When and how have two wheels been caught on film? Over the next six months I’ll be examining cycling in films. It’s one part film review and one part bike nerd exploration. From coming of age nostalgia, to surreal escapism, to film noir and everything in between, here is the third story in the series: Bikes on Reels. Read Parts 1 and 2 here. 

Image courtesy of HBO

Binge Cycling through High Maintenance

By Cayley James

My favourite TV show is a web series about a weed dealer and the people who smoke it. In my opinion, High Maintenance was the best TV show before it was even on TV. Originating in the overpopulated realm of web series’, its heart and intelligence helped it stand apart from the rest. Over the course of 25 episodes, creators, Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair take you down a rabbit hole of character studies that exist within the geographic parameters of New York City. The narrative is shepherded through each episode by the fixie bike riding weed dealer we know exclusively as “The Guy.”  Its simplicity is its strength.

In June of 2014 I stumbled across Emily Nussbaum’s review of the web series in the New Yorker. At that time it was just transition from self-funded episodes to a Vimeo financed production. Now it is an honest to goodness television show on HBO. with slick production design and the occasional high profile character actor making an appearance. Regardless of these new additions the message remains the same: Be honest.

Courtesy of HBO 

So far I have looked at films that transport you to a different time through nostalgia  or through the surreal. But High Maintenance is grounded in the very real here and now. Admittedly bikes are not central to the narrative - except for the fact that the lynchpin of the show is almost always on one. The dramatic entanglements come out of carefully constructed personalities. So rather than a plot device, the bike is synonymous with the character of The Guy (promotional pictures for the show have Ben Sinclair decked out in his messenger bag and skate helmet). He cycles across the five boroughs delivering weed to a plethora of personalities. Then, lucky for us, we get to see into their lives like we're Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window. The show's purpose is to deftly subvert the preconceptions of who smokes and why they choose to, its specificity and insight hinge on the ethnographic. Co-creator Blichfeld is an Emmy award winning casting director with the likes of 30-Rock on her resume. It's no surprise the show is full of wonderful and peculiar performers.

Image courtesy of HBO

When it was online, the episodes lasted between 6-11 minutes. Now as a proper TV show they have been able to maintain the self-imposed limitations by splitting the thirty minute episodes in half - with two tangentially connected stories. In the beginning, the characters primarily occupied the creative class: writers, comedians, artists etc. The tone veered toward Portalndia-lite satire for the East Coast. Lots of laughs at the expense of gentrification in Brooklyn, art-world assholes and obliviousness to the existence of life outside of NYC. As the show matured there has been a clear attempt to broaden the scope. Some of the made-for-TV episodes have been some of the best story-telling I've ever seen. Most notably episode 3 - which is from the perspective of a dog. Highly recommended.

The limited length has the writers utilise montage in innovative ways. Sinclair does double duty as the editor and there's a mellow unfurling rhythm to the show as each subject's routine and reality is exposed. In turn leaving room for longer uninterrupted scenes that you don’t often see on TV, which expose heartache, anxiety and occasionally, relief.

I have spoken to some people who felt the transition from the web to premium wasn't a smooth transition. That it lost its scruffy smarts. "It was a show for stoners but now it seems like it's not really about that anymore" a friend remarked. But I fail to see the misstep. So much comedy, since the dawn of laughing at someone falling down, has been rooted in taking the piss out of something or someone. And in our age of post-truth omnishambles there is nothing short of infuriating fodder for satirists to binge on. But High Maintenance's goal is to be kind or at the very least understand their subjects. No matter how unbearable. Because as screwed up as our world is there are still the moments of banality in between the chaos. Like any great short-form artist Sinclair and Blitchfeld are stellar at mining the very normal world for remarkable moments.

Don't get me wrong there are laugh out loud cringe comedy but there is compassion and care at every level of storytelling here. It's zany in the way a wild night out can be, or as awkward as a first date - so rarely does the show rely on the farcical sitcom-y stylings of even the most nuanced of television comedies. When it does veer in that direction, usually when the character Chad is around, it is brief and noticeably less emotionally intelligent than the rest.

Now, I’m going to have to contradict myself slightly here. The bike, as much as its synonymous with the dealer, is an invaluable part of the show. The creators could have easily just shown him arriving at each location, or put him in a car. But there is shot after shot of him mid-delivery, looking for a decent parking spot or losing his last spare key to his lock. In a recent HBO episode a woman admonishes him for locking his bike up to a “ghost bike.”  She yells down to him having watched him struggle to find a spot: “That’s a memorial you know!” He attempts to explain himself - but, knows she’s right. It’s the naturalism of it, like everything in this series, that amazes me.

Image Courtesy of HBO

So much has been written about the metropolis observed from two feet. But cycling in the city, a topic on which I have thought long and hard, is a different beast all together. It is a tool that is both disconnected and connected. Present and in motion. Apologies for the simplistic description, but: When you’re riding you are moving through the community but equally part of it. You are not ensconced in the private bubble of an automobile nor are you part of the rabble on your feet. There is a strange tension of being on a bike. This dichotomy of the public and private strikes at the heart of the show. Who we present versus who we really are.

The guy's role is to expose the thing we all struggle with: being ourselves. He is the epitome of the non-judgemental sounding board. Not until the final episode of the HBO season do we find out much of his personal life. His nondescript identity allows for his dedicated clientele to trust him. He is both knowable and unknowable. As someone making their profession on the margins of society it makes sense that he is more of an idea of a person to his clients than someone concrete. Because despite being the default 'main character' the stories are never from his perspective. There are dozens of perspectives that we get of New York City and weed is just the gateway drug (pun so heartily intended) to them all.

The best kinds of shows have always been surprises. I didn't realize I needed a show that gave me insight to  the emotional life of a Helen Hunt obsessed agoraphobe or a girl nick-named Homeless Heidi. But these snapshots, so lovingly rendered, are indelible. I get jealous when I talk to people who haven't seen it before! I go back to the first handful of episodes time and time again and they never get old. So to get through the next couple of harsh months, do yourself a favour and watch this show.

Next up is a look back at the Toronto based caper Monkey Warfare.

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