(HBO)

We’re not a supporting player in the movie that is our life; we’re the marquee-hogging above-the-line star. And like actual Hollywood celebrities, our value as a commodity hinges on acknowledgment and validation from others. Humans are social creatures, and deny it as we might, the need for other people’s attention is pretty much embedded in our RNA sequencing. Which is all fine and good when this need stays within acceptable boundaries. But moderation ain’t everyone’s bag. The two distinct—and distinctly different—tales laid out in “Selfie” track what happens when this desire for attention shifts from normalcy to narcissism to full-metal pathology. One tale confidently sticks the landing; the other gets a bit too enamored with its own reflection.

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Story one hits us with Anja Jacobs (Ismenia Mendes), a splashy twentysomething who, like prit’ near every other millennial, is all about the social media. Anja not only accepts the fragmentation that comes with such a lifestyle, she embraces it. This explains her Joan Didion t-shirt, which fetes the author and journalist whose oeuvre is all about emphasizing the power of the individual. Who needs meatspace friends when likes and photo filters provide an effective workaround?

Anja’s day starts with the non-pot version of a wake and bake, where she takes to Instagram the moment her eyes open. She showers and styles herself before jumping back into bed for that obligatory “I just woke up” selfie. (Captioned with the Didion quote, “Work harder. Spend more time alone.”) And naturally, she takes a moment to let Instagram know she’s finally joined Snapchat. As an aspiring young journalist in New York—and an avid Sex And The City fan (HBO meta reference #1)—it’s fitting Anja goes by ‘scary_bradshaw’ on her various online platforms. Superficially, her life mirrors that of Sarah Jessica Parker’s iconic ‘writer in the Big Apple’ character. There’s a distinction here though, and a significant one at that: The entire Sex And The City TV series predates the social media boom. Meaning outside of the occasional phone call, Carrie Bradshaw’s interactions took place in the real world. When she wasn’t on dates with flesh and blood men, she’d be out on the town sipping Cosmos with Samantha, the redhead, and the other one. Which is a pretty far cry from this:

There’s a less-than-YOLO story behind many of the selfies Anja uploads throughout the day. At a local clothing store, she sports a trendy new outfit with the caption “Treat yo self!” only to return it to the sales clerk afterward. ($12,000 in credit card debt, ya see.) While receiving a pedicure, she dismissively hands her attendant a crumpled-up bill, then photographs her with the ‘altruistic’ tag“don’t 4get 2 tip.” Despite an earlier photo caption suggesting otherwise, Anja is by no means living her best life.

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When she eventually gets down to work, it’s to interview The Guy for an article she’s writing about drug dealers. And in the presence of an actual human person, she’s a tad clunky with personal boundaries. “This is a safe space,” Anja says as the interview begins, pledging The Guy both anonymity and respect. The promise is quickly broken, however; she smacks him with a hearty bait and switch, abandoning the article’s ’fun stories from a weed dealer’ angle for accusatory, racially-charged questions about why he’s never been arrested while innocent black men are regularly sent to prison. “I just felt like I would be remiss as an interviewer if I didn’t cover this very important part of the subject” Anja explains, projecting a sense of morality she may or may not actually feel.

The next boundary-pushing surprise comes when she steps away to take a call from a potential industry contact. The Guy—seeing Anja’s full name on an errant piece of mail—Googles her, only to discover she covertly uploaded an unsettling photo to Instagram minutes earlier. The pic: him, seated on her couch, a big stash of weed in the foreground. The caption: “Working on a DOPE new piece!” followed by a stream of emojis and a ‘staywoke’ hashtag. So much for a safe space. Naturally, The Guy takes his leave, but not before deep-sixing the interview and demanding she delete the offending image. And so ends Anja’s big article.

That evening, she sits in bed, leafing through an Elena Ferrante novel she bought (and posed with in a selfie) earlier in the day. Her taste in reading material is ironic here, given Ferrante is arguably the most private, attention-shy writer in modern literature. Also, there’s a problem: Anja can’t seem to focus for more than a few seconds without reaching for her precious Instagram. She alternates between the book and the phone, finally opting for the latter, giving in to the hollow-yet-vital service it provides. And then she cries. Big time cries. Because her interview’s derailed? Or because she’s handcuffed to a life with precious little substance? We can all draw our own conclusions. One thing’s for certain: Fresh-faced Ismenia Mendes brings a complex and engaging vulnerability to the character, making us vacillate between wanting to hug away her pain and scream “grow the hell up!” Either way, it’s a well-earned ambivalence we experience, borne out of taut writing, crisp editing, and an impressive lead actress manning the selfie ship.

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At the risk of getting all tangential, let’s talk Seinfeld for a moment. One of the show’s more polarizing story arcs grew out of a 1992 episode called “The Pitch,” which sees Jerry and George shopping around a sitcom based on their lives. When a pilot episode gets green-lit, J and G add their ‘real life’ experiences into the project, casting lookalike actors to play the gang and writing clever scenes from previous Seinfeld episodes into the script. This conceit holds up slightly better in syndication, since we’re all overtly familiar with Seinfeld’s characters, antics, and quotable dialogue. But it made little sense at the time: The show had yet to penetrate the zeitgeist, and was still building up a regular audience. Years later, Jason Alexander admitted the sitcom within a sitcom idea was “self-aggrandized,” with Castle Rock executive Glenn Padnick calling it “inside baseball on a show that most people didn’t know even existed.” Anyhow, all this to say “Selfie’s” second story is pretty much a variation on “The Pitch,” catering to the High Maintenance web series geeks at the expense of new HBO viewers. “Wait, who’s Homeless Heidi?” you can hear the newbies asking. “And why is Hannibal Buress hanging out with her?”

Homeless Heidi (Greta Lee) made her debut on a memorable High Maintenance webisode in 2012. She’s a stylish young woman who jumps from live-in relationship to live-in relationship, never alerting her suitors to the fact she doesn’t actually have a place of her own. When we meet up with her again in 2016, stuff’s going pretty darn well. She’s moved in with a sweet, wealthy guy, and they’re planning a big wedding, because that’s what people with money do. The other shoe drops pretty quickly, though. Heidi comes across an ET/Extra-style profile on Homeless Helga, a new “hipster comedy” seemingly based on her life as an opportunistic house hopper. It stars Orange Is The New Black’s Kimiko Glenn as Helga, and Eagleheart’s Brett Gelman as Guy, the balding, bearded pot dealer who’s onto her mischievous antics. (So yeah, it rehashes the plot points from the original “Heidi” webisode.) “I would definitely say that Brooklyn is a character in the show,” Brett reveals to the camera, parroting a line often said about High Maintenance. For those keeping score, every element of this scene nabs a solid eight Kevin Smiths out of ten on the campy self-referential scale.

Heidi is understandably not thrilled about seeing her incriminating modus operandi play out on the small screen. So she tracks down the man responsible: Matt (Kyle Harris), the former struggling writer she moved in with (read: played) years earlier. Matt not only refuses to admit his new show is based on her, he takes the fifth on whether they’ve even met. Her angry reply: “Watch out! My fucking lawyer’s serving your ass!” It’s not for the money, mind you: Heidi’s parents are actually quite well-to-do. It’s that this player really doesn’t enjoy being played. For her lawsuit to stick, Heidi needs someone to corroborate she and Matt were briefly a couple. And the only guy who fits the bill is, well, The Guy. Although initially reluctant to get involved (on account of he’s a drug dealer and Matt was his client), The Guy changes his tune when Heidi pulls up a clip of Brett Gelman’s grating Homeless Helga character. Which rings a false note, given our drug-dealing pal has always been keen on flying below the radar. To boot, watching The Guy on my laptop watching the Homeless Helga version of The Guy on Homeless Heidi’s laptop is one seriously meta journey down the self-referential rabbit hole. Think of it as the TV version of the kid on the Borax box holding up a Borax box with him on it, all the way down to infinity and beyond.

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None of this is to say Heidi’s storyline is a complete bust. In fact, much is pretty entertaining. But for every great moment (a meek P.A. stopping The Guy from walking near a Girls shoot, The Guy rocking a suit and a ‘tude at a deposition), there’s a smirky, navel-gazing counterpunch (the tonally adrift Homeless Helga profile, the fact we’re watching an episode of Girls being filmed at all). Where Anja’s tale makes a powerful statement about the perils of self-indulgently turning the camera on yourself, the Homeless Heidi/Helga story ignores such warnings, and does exactly that. We can laugh at High Maintenance for calling unwarranted attention to itself, or we can roll our eyes at Heidi and Anja for doing the same thing. But we can’t really do both.

Stray observations

  • “So, you’re a pot dealer. What’s that like?”
  • Homeless Heidi has three Elena Ferrante novels by her bedside. Your move, Anja.
  • HBO meta reference #2: Hannibal Buress appearing on an HBO show (High Maintenance) lamenting the fact his Comedy Central contract prevents him from appearing on an HBO show (Girls). Mind you, since his Comedy Central show Why? wasn’t renewed, he’s effectively a free agent now, which explains why he’s able to appear on an HBO show (High Maintenance). We good?
  • Although Hannibal is relegated to cameo comic relief in this episode, he showed serious dramatic heft in “Jonathan,” the surprisingly dark 2013 High Maintenance webisode. Definitely worth a watch.
  • Closing credits tag: Seemingly bored with married life, Heidi finds a new way to seek out attention. She pretends to be blind.
  • Brett Gelman and Ben ‘The Guy’ Sinclair clearly need to go as each other for Halloween this year.

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