Yael Stone and Bowdie the Dog (HBO)

Before its message was field-stripped by that vapid ‘Jennifer Aniston with the dry eyes’ commercial, the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” presented a simple-yet-beautiful truth: Love is a big freakin’ deal, and our lives are far more gratifying when it finds us. “Grandpa” re-introduces us to this poetic concept, albeit with a clever bait and switch. Chase (Ryan Woodle), is a man frustrated and lonely after a move from Indiana to Queens. The isolation and culture shock quickly take their toll on the schlubby thirtysomething, who, when he isn’t working long hours, alternates between eating on the couch and crying on the couch.

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With his Labradoodle(ish) pooch Gatsby acting out from the big move, Chase hires a dog walker named Beth (Orange Is the New Black’s Yael Stone) to remedy the issue. Chase and Beth are on clashing ends of the ol’ color palate. He’s a tightly-wound, Midwestern, Trump-supporting business guy. She’s a sexy, free-spirited hippie girl with eccentricity to spare. Can these two polar opposites some way, somehow, end up falling for each other? We have no idea, because High Maintenance couldn’t give less of a shit about trite rom-com storylines. Sure, “Grandpa” is a love story, but one with a kicker: It’s all about the dog. In fact, Gatsby’s human counterparts are faceless for the first several minutes, framed below the shoulders to provide a quasi pup’s-eye view of the various goings-on. (Inspired camerawork throughout the episode courtesy of DP Dagmar Weaver-Madsen and show creators/directors Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair.) It’s only when the freshly-hired Beth bends down to greet her new walking partner do we see our first human visage. “Here’s what I want you to know about me,” she coos. “I have the best motherfucking treats.”

The relationship veers into uncharted territory pretty quickly. On their inaugural walk, Beth stops at a public drinking fountain. As she laps away at the questionably sanitized water, Gatsby becomes enamored, both romantically and, well, kinda sexually. This revelation, you’ll be relieved to know, doesn’t come via some Look Who’s Talking Now-style voiceover. Instead, we’re delivered what may be the most hallucinatory moment in High Maintenance’s brief TV—and not-so-brief web—tenure: a dog’s wildly surreal and not-entirely PG daydream sequence. In it, we see Beth dancing suggestively for Gatz in a white flowing dress. Her hands cupped like paws, her rear in ‘presenting’ mode, her tongue primed for some serious licking. If the planet’s dog population ever decided on a mating dance, this would be that mating dance.

There’s some de facto logic to Gatsby’s interspecies crush. During that initial conversation with Chase, Beth explains what prompted her to become a professional dog walker: “I was in a church in Brazil, and halfway through the ceremony I looked down and I was like, ‘Whoa, I’m really close to the ground… And I also have paws.’ And then I was like, ‘Shit, I’m a dog.’ And when I got back to the city, I thought, ‘I have to work with dogs.’” So yeah, although Beth may seem quite human (and next-level loopy) to the rest of us, Gatsby is able to dig through that facade to unearth her inner canine.

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Our furry chum is in love. So much so that when Beth leaves Chase’s apartment, he darts to the window to watch her saunter down the street. When she returns the next day, he pees a little out of sheer excitement. (Hey, we’ve all been there.) He even gets possessive: When an old acquaintance greets Beth on the street, his bark comes out in full force. He’s even less welcoming when Beth invites her friend—a.k.a. The Guy—over to Chase’s home to smoke some pot and crack open a couple of PBRs. Gatsby may be a dog, but he knows a rival suitor when he sees one.

These obstacles multiply the next day, when Chase fires Beth after discovering she brought a guest into his home. With his soulmate now out of the picture, our lovesick dog falls into a deep funk. Listless. Lifeless. Loveless. (Once again, we’ve all been there.) It’s the merciless sting of heartbreak, and it has no intention of leaving anytime soon. Looking to get his depressed companion back on track, Chase takes Gatsby for a run at the dog park. And run he does, through an accidentally-opened gate and into the daunting streets of Queens. At one point or another, each of us has talked a good game about what we’d do for love. But Gatsby actually walks the walk. In one fleeting moment, he abandons every last vestige of security and comfort for the remote possibility of finding Beth. That, friends, is commitment. All he needs is love.

What makes “Grandpa” so instantly relatable is its decision to show us love doesn’t always return the favor. At the risk of jumping from a Beatles to a Rolling Stones reference, Gatsby slowly discovers you can’t always get what you want. Lost on the streets of New York, he winds up in the company of a young woman—although not the one we’re hoping for. She’s a tatted-up, possibly homeless street performer who’s sweet, caring, and perfectly fine. She’s also not Beth. (Case in point: He feels zero spark when she drinks from that same water fountain.)

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Not only does love have a spotty track record on returning the favor, it can be downright cruel on occasion. Hours/days/weeks later (not much way to tell), Gatsby and his adoptive owner are approached by a friendly couple in the park. It’s Beth and The Guy, who’ve briefly stopped to give the transient gal a joint. (Her sign reads “Need $$ for weed. Or just weed.”) Gatsby perks up in disbelief. This is it. Time slows down. The romantic music wells. Beth bends down, smiles widely, and rubs his dirty face. They’ve reconnected. Except for the fact they haven’t. Because Beth has no idea it’s Gatsby. He’s just a cute dog she’s saying hello to. And now she’s walking away, acting all chummy-chummy-cozy with some bearded guy. Ouch. Unsure how to proceed, our pal Gatz follows her a few yards, stops, glances back at his new owner, then back over at Beth. Eventually, the undeniable decision makes itself. He returns to his spot in the park and lies down, resigned to his fate.

Yep, he’s just a dog, and the show’s just a bunch of actors playing make-believe. But “Grandpa” packs a punch, creating emotional resonance by treating a silly little ‘what if?’ tale with yielding respect. It even sidesteps High Maintenance’s newly-structured ‘two stories, one episode’ format, devoting a full half hour to this plaintive journey. Hey, sometimes dogs fall in love with off-the-wall wild child bohemian women. And sometimes, despite risking everything, things don’t work out. Which kind of sucks. This raw, arduous experience may not make Gatsby great, but it does make him pretty darn human. And that’s a story worth telling.

Stray observations

  • Sure, it’s no-holds-barred HBO n’ all, but there’s enjoyment in watching Chase angrily yell “Judas Priest!” in lieu of something more sacrilegious.
  • Where are the Emmy’s pet categories? Because this dog has more acting chops and emotional range than plenty of human TV actors.
  • Since Gatsby has an adventure and moves on to a new owner at the end, “Grandpa” can either be considered a top-notch High Maintenance episode or the best-ever Littlest Hobo episode.
  • It may take place in New York, but High Maintenance gives a shout-out to L.A. this week by naming two of Gatz’s dog buddies Musso and Frank. (A Hollywood institution—try the Lobster Thermidor.)
  • Prior to meeting up with Beth, The Guy takes a look into the future. And it’s pretty terrifying.

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(HBO)