As a fan of Alan Ball’s work, especially Six Feet Under, it disappoints me enormously that Here and Now is such a mess of a series. This family drama from the man who gave birth to the Fishers of the HBO funeral-home saga as well as the vampires of True Blood, addresses empty liberalism, existential crises, and religious angst, then spreads an apocryphal, supernatural element on top of it all. The result is an insufferable ten-episode HBO series that’s trying very hard to speak to the mood of our times but ultimately does not have anything significant to say about it.
Holly Hunter and Tim Robbins, who both deserve a better television vehicle to showcase their talents, star as Audrey Bayer and Greg Boatwright, a married pair of Berkeley alums with a mostly grown, multiracial brood that they’ve carefully raised — some might even say curated — to reflect their progressive values. Their three adult children, who all, like their parents, live in Portland, were adopted from various corners of the globe. There’s Ashley (Jerrika Hinton of Grey’s Anatomy), from Liberia, who’s now married, a mother to her own daughter, and the owner of a photography business; Duc (Raymond Lee), the extremely rigid life coach who was born in Vietnam; and Ramon (Daniel Zovatto), a Colombian video-game designer who starts having unexplained visions that hint at a possible mental-health issue. Then there’s Kristen (Sosie Bacon, daughter of Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick), who’s 17, the youngest member of the clan, and Audrey and Greg’s only biological child. Perhaps not surprisingly, Kristen engages in behavior — like wearing horse-head masks at weird moments or inventing Facebook profiles for fake people — that make her simultaneously stand out and disappear in a family in which she feels like the least interesting member. In short, every Bayer-Boatwright has Issues and tries to escape them by engaging in unconventional behavior, using drugs, working too hard, having casual sex, or some combination of all of the above.
To be fair, these qualities aren’t so removed from the ones that surfaced in the members of the Fisher family on Six Feet Under, who did their share of pot, sleeping around, and generally acting ultra-self-involved. The difference is that those characters were not merely drawn, but fully colored in and given dimension. They felt like real people, whereas the characters on Here and Now seem like progressive paper dolls moving through each scene while peppering their phrases with lefty terms — the patriarchy, gender fluid — in a way that implies Ball and his fellow writers read the CliffsNotes on 2018 but didn’t study the actual text closely enough before submitting their essay.
Perhaps this is by design, a way to satirize the lack of true heft behind the belief system the Bayer-Boatwrights have supposedly embodied their whole lives. The show certainly makes it clear that Audrey and Greg are at least a little full of shit, a fact that Greg — a professor famous for writing a best seller called The Layman’s Guide to the Here and Now who happens to be mired in a post–midlife crisis — wrestles with pretty actively. But it seems like Here and Now ultimately wants us to respect the couple’s desire to change the world, to genuinely like and care about them as well as the rest of the characters. That’s hard to do since being in their presence for more than five minutes grates so quickly on the nerves.
Then there’s the whole 11:11 thing, a conceit that surfaces in the first episode — airing this Sunday — and gives Here and Now much of its narrative spine. From the very beginning, Ramon has strange dreams and begins seeing the numbers 11:11 repeatedly, on various clocks but even in the flames from burning candles. Ramon interprets this as prophetic, a sign that he’s been chosen to convey some sort of important message. That sense is reinforced when he begins therapy with Farid Hokrani (Peter Macdissi, also an executive producer of the series as well as the actor who played Olivier on Six Feet Under), whose own personal history may connect to Ramon’s visions in ways that Farid is still trying to process. As the show progresses, connections between the Hokranis and the Boatwrights continue to emerge.
While this bit of magical realism is a key part of the series, it functions just tangentially enough to seem out of place, at least in the first four episodes provided to critics in advance. On a basic level, the numerological sightings imply that society has reached, or is about to reach, some sort of reckoning or turning point, an idea that’s reinforced elsewhere, including in a rip-roaring monologue that Greg delivers while serving on a panel at an ethics conference.
“Thirty years ago, the truth was still truth,” he says. “A fact was still a fact. But we’re not that society anymore. The world got turned upside down.”
At home, later that day, Greg echoes that sense of disenchantment by telling his wife that he’s feeling weighed down by a sense of grief because the bulk of his life has been lived already. “I just feel like it went by so fucking fast. Everything’s over. Us. Our kids. The world.”
Here and Now is trying to illustrate the way that personal depression can easily become intertwined with the pessimism brought on by the ugliness in contemporary politics and culture. That’s a very valid, relatable experience to explore, especially right now when many people may be feeling the same way. It’s at moments like these that the show almost, almost resonates. But Here and Now is so self-conscious and obvious about what it’s trying to do that it makes the audience too aware of what it’s attempting, too, thereby killing the chance to organically emotionally connect with any of it.
More than once, this series tells us that all we have as human beings, really, is the present. If that’s true, then it seems pretty clear that we would be better off spending that present on something other than watching Here and Now.