Peter Friedman (HBO)

Dads, amirite? They come in various shapes, sizes, ages, and ethnicities. They’re also a hell of a parental crapshoot: Some are fantastic, others complete shit, and most end up somewhere in the middle, straddling the line between role models and cautionary tales. Our relationships with them can be further muddled once we fly the coop; the paradox being we’re no longer children, yet we’re still their children. This is stage two of a lifelong relationship dynamic—a reshuffling of the deck that often veers into uncharted territory. “Tick” presents two warts-and-all examples of this framework, while never attempting a heavy-handed stab at the answers.

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Story one follows Wei (Clem Cheung) and Joon (Kristen Hung), an elderly Chinese couple living above a Brooklyn liquor store. Their days are spent scrounging the streets for cans and bottles, which they sell to a nearby recycling plant. Despite this modest lifestyle, they seem content, and have the charming rapport reserved for partners who’ve been together forever yet lovingly accept each other’s shortcomings. Their adult son Liang (the pitch-perfect Stephen Lin) leads an entirely different life. He’s a professional musician, earning a very comfortable living performing concerts around the world.

After attending one of his New York shows, Wei and Joon meet Liang and his girlfriend Solange for a bite to eat. Over dinner, Solange asks Wei if he has any old photos of Liang as a kid, back when he’d play violin in the subways. Her friend is directing a documentary on musical prodigies, and Liang, given his impressive talents, is one of the subjects. While Joon gushes over her “famous” son, Wei lets out a small belch, then chides him for drinking white wine. “Bad for the liver.” The conversation eventually turns to travel, with Liang inviting his folks to visit them in Berlin. Joon, knowing her husband all too well, politely declines on his behalf, saying the six-hour flight would be too hard on his back. (This, a man who can effortlessly haul bags of heavy recycling.) Liang extols the creature comforts of business class air travel, hoping to change his dad’s mind. “First class is too expensive,” Wei grumbles, seemingly too proud to accept his son’s gift.

Despite his withdrawn demeanor, Wei isn’t unaffected by Liang’s concert (where he sat stone-faced in the audience) and the labored post-show dinner talk. Later in the week, Joon hits the Adult Learning Center for a ‘Basic Functions of the Apple iPhone’ class. (Solange bought them both phones; unsurprisingly, Wei rejects his.) With his wife out of the apartment, he stealthily pulls a case from underneath the bed. Inside: a Chinese erhu fiddle. The dust covering the case reveals more than a lack of regular Swiffering: It helps contextualize Wei’s stilted relationship with Liang. As an immigrant from a bygone generation, he didn’t have the luxury of taking his musical abilities beyond the hobby stage. His focus was likely on two things: steady work and providing his family with opportunities he wasn’t afforded. Wei earns serious dad points for allowing Liang to develop his gift at a young age. And naturally, he loses serious dad points for resenting (or at least refusing to acknowledge) Liang’s professional successes as an adult. Fatherhood can be a zero-sum game.

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Over to story two, where Jim (Peter Friedman, in stellar form), our episode’s other Gordian dad, is a fellow student at Joon’s iPhone class. Which is pretty much all seniors, by the way—a scenario rife for comedic jabs. “I still noticed that some of you are licking your finger before you swipe the phone,” the ever-so-patient instructor notes. “You don’t need to do that with this technology.” Jim is a 67-year-old former workaholic who’s since retired and moved to New York to try a new lifestyle on for size. “I used to be a fucking asshole,” he confesses to The Guy. These days, he’s all about making up for lost time. Which mostly involves chasing after the fun and adventure he missed out on as a young parent in the workforce. “It’s like, they were born, then I went to work, where I slept and woke up 30 years later.” With the rat race behind him, Jim does yoga, smokes a lot of pot, dances with funky locals at early morning day raves, and tries his best to incorporate ‘hip’ (notice the quotes) urban jargon into everyday conversation. Highlights include “This shit is fucking cray,” and “Bye, Felicia!”

Peter Friedman (HBO)

Despite these indulgences, Jim isn’t completely about Jim. He’s recently invited his daughter Quinn, her husband Dean, and their baby to live in his Brooklyn home. He hopes to expose his grandkid to the kind of culture and diversity you can’t find out in the suburbs. But he’s equally eager to connect with Quinn, who got precious little face time with him back in his company man days. (Coincidence that his iPhone class homework assignment is to FaceTime friends and family? Perhaps not.)

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During a backyard pow-wow with The Guy, Jim’s mellow is seriously harshed when Quinn blames him for putting an electric kettle on the stove. “Dad, do we have to be the only adults in the house?” she lectures, smoke still billowing from the kitchen. Clearly it’s not just about the half-melted kettle. “I know you don’t have a lot of experience raising children, but it’s more than just showing up and buying things.” Hurt and taken aback, Jim lays out an obvious truth most children have taken for granted at one point or another: “I’m a person. I’m not just a dad, I’m a person too. And I have feelings.” It’s a heartbreaking exchange, with no one to root for or against; we feel deep sympathy for Jim in the moment, yet it’s hard to dismiss Quinn having grown up as the child of an absentee dad. Although their relationship status could have been left up in the air a la Wei and Liang, “Tick” treats us to a touching late-night reconciliation, made possible by Jim’s newest method of communication: texting. Jim confirms he ordered a new kettle, then showers his daughter with a series of meme-, emoji-, and internet slang-based peace offerings. She in turn appreciates the efforts he’s now making, choosing not to relegate them to the ‘too little, too late’ pile.

With “Tick,” High Maintenance once again thrives at dodging boilerplate personality traits to reward its viewers with nuanced characterization. With few exceptions, no one pulled into The Guy’s orbit is a full-fledged hero, anti-hero, or villain. Such is real life: Just as some of your favorite people have disappointed you with their behavior, those you loathe will occasionally surprise you with their kindness. And whether we care to admit it or not, dads often fall into both categories.

Stray observations

  • Liang plays the freakin’ theremin. If your school didn’t offer that in music class, your school sucked.
  • And the award for Best Barely Audible Throwaway Line goes to the iPhone class instructor: “You cannot delete the internet—I think you probably just deleted a shortcut.”
  • Quinn was the put-upon assistant in High Maintenance’s inaugural webisode, “Stevie” (2012). Now she’s the impatient boss with a put-upon assistant of her own. Ah, the circle of life.
  • “As far I can tell, these people spend every day they’re not at Burning Man decompressing from or getting ready for Burning Man.”
  • Oh yeah: As the title suggests, there’s a tick in this episode. It bit the baby in Montauk.
  • Jim renounces Gmail in a text to Quinn, pledging he “WILL NEVER RETIRE PaulSimonFan49@aol.com!!” (Capitalization his.) You tell her, Jim—“The Rhythm of the Saints” is a masterpiece.
  • Closing credits tag: Wei ends his musical hiatus to play the erhu in the subway. A proud tribute to Liang or a big ol’ fuck you to Liang?
  • Hey, it’s the delightful Gaby Hoffmann in a fun little non-speaking cameo. Sure, she’s playing herself, but she could have just as easily been playing Transparent’s Ali Pfefferman, who flew out from Los Angeles to get her day rave yoga freak on. Not hard to picture both series inhabiting the same TV universe.

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