Alan Ball’s Here and Now is a deposition on America in the Trump Age, composed almost entirely of scenes that function as dramatizations of liberal op-ed pieces. Ball is understandably so enraged with the direction this country is taking that his emotions have seemingly blocked the perception and humor that he and his collaborators evinced in the best portions of Six Feet Under. Ball wants to say something, perhaps delivering his version of Peter Finch’s “mad as hell” speech from Sidney Lumet’s Network. But Here and Now’s characters are stuck uttering trite bon mots that would be too dull for fortune cookies, and perhaps too obvious even for self-help seminars.
Set in Portland, Oregon, the HBO series follows characters who each represent a controversial issue dogging American culture. The show’s central patriarch, Greg Boatwright (Tim Robbins), is a philosopher who once wrote a bestseller that inadvertently embodied baby boomer naïveté, proclaiming that we should embrace optimism and empathy in all situations. Now on the cusp of 60 and in despair over the country’s embrace of “ignorance, hatred, terror, and rage,” Greg endorses anxiety and outrage without defining a new political viewpoint, at least over the course of the four episodes that were screened for press. Greg’s point of view has hints of promise, as he vaguely represents liberals who’re tired of having to turn the other cheek to their enemies and sick to death of canned sentiments like “When they go low, we go high.”
Greg is a liberal who’s fed up with prizing his “virtue” over actual cultural power. That’s an invigorating idea, and it’s one that might’ve cut through the cacophonous self-congratulation of liberal pop culture if it had been allowed to occupy the center of this scattershot series. Greg wants to fight fire with fire, which puts him at ideological odds with his wife, Audrey Bayer (Holly Hunter), who runs a nonprofit that’s actually called the Empathy Initiative. Audrey is a conflict counselor at a local high school, where she defends a group of kids who hang a black mannequin from a tree on the school’s front grounds with a noose and with a sign affixed to it that reads “I feel dead.” She claims that their prosecution would only fuel the country’s systemic hatred. That sign is a contemptuous refutation of Audrey’s touchy-feely smugness—a reference to an exercise she uses to defuse a situation between racist students, who want to start a club for white kids, and students of color.
For all her liberal bona fides, Audrey is still the sort of clueless white chick who tells her adopted African-American daughter, Ashley (Jerrika Hinton), that she loves the latter’s hair because it’s so natural. Audrey also fetishizes her adopted Colombian son, Ramon (Daniel Zovatto), who’s gay and feels smothered by his mother’s performative approval. Because no subtext in Here and Now can go unvoiced, Ashley vents about her mother with another adopted sibling, the Vietnam-born Duc (Raymond Lee), who’s a control freak like Ashley and has written a book with a capitalist approach to self-actualization. Rounding out this studiously diverse, progressive clan is Kristen (Sosie Bacon), Greg and Ashley’s 17-year-old biological daughter, who feels dull and culture-less next to her dynamic and successful siblings.
Here and Now is so preoccupied with checking off representative boxes that it forgets to whip up actual drama. There’s little plot, no aesthetic distinctiveness, and no sense of casualness or specificity to the series, which is as blinkered as Audrey is by liberal tunnel vision even though it fashions itself a work of ideological auto-criticism. One finds it difficult to believe that any philosophy book is a bestseller at all, let alone one that preaches such rhetorical pseudo-profundities as “be here now,” which might not have even passed muster on Oprah. Did Greg really build a career on such banality, and if so, wouldn’t it merit satire? Audrey’s nonprofit may as well be a figment of her imagination, as we see no other collaborators and are given no sense of the group’s bureaucratic organization. And the various races, sexual preferences, and religious purviews of the characters remain unexplored, except to score frequent superficial points on flagrant prejudices.
Underneath its fashionable self-consciousness, Here and Now is another series about rich and attractive people leading privileged lives, occupying chic dwellings, buying stuff, getting laid, and working through largely petty misunderstandings and jealousies. It’s bourgeoisie TV for audiences suffering from social guilt, especially due to race and class. Remove the calculated profanity, nudity, and violence, as well as a supernatural gimmick that scans as reheated Leftovers, and you’re not far off from something like NBC’s more enjoyable Parenthood. Here and Now’s “daring” couldn’t be more complacent.