The trailer for Here and Now, Alan Ball’s latest offering on HBO, is like a bizarre advertisement for liberal white America’s best intentions. Meant to be a show that examines the reality of being an American in the “here and now”—a multicultural Benetton ad come to life, less melting pot and more chopped salad—the result is a messy excavation of white guilt, sprinkled here and there with brief moments that have the potential to be interesting. In the first four episodes made available to critics, however, it never really looks up from its own navel to say something of substance.
Here and Now portrays the lives of the Bayer-Boatwright family, headed by Greg (Tim Robbins), a philosophy professor and Audrey (Holly Hunter, still good despite the material), the head of something called the Empathy Initiative, a conflict-resolution consultancy. Their children are the aforementioned Benneton ad, all adopted from various countries that, in their own words, America royally fucked over. There’s Duc (Raymond Lee), a control-obsessed life coach adopted from Vietnam; Ramon (Daniel Zovatto), the aimless 22-year-old and seeming spiritual center of the entire endeavor, adopted from Colombia; and Ashley (Jerrika Hinton), adopted from Liberia and now in charge of something that involves beautiful male models, the internet, and fashion. These adult children are joined by the Bayer-Boatwright’s biological daughter Kristen (a radiant Sosie Bacon, daughter of Kevin and Kyra Sedgwick), who embodies the best and worst of her parents’ intentions. If this wasn’t enough to get you really thinking, there’s also a formerly-Muslim therapist, his Muslim wife, and his gender fluid son Navid who wears a full YouTube glam beat and hijab in the house, but not at school or in public. Naturally, this show is set in Portland, Oregon, the nation’s capital of gestural progressive values, and much like living in Portland, is exhausting for the spirit and the mind.
What unfolds in these first episodes is the narrative equivalent to too many cooks in one very tight kitchen. According to the show’s official description, it’s “a provocative and darkly comic meditation on the disparate forces polarizing present-day American culture, as experienced by the members of a progressive multi-ethnic family.” The result of that highly ambitious and eye-rolling intention ends up being kind of a mess. Greg and Audrey are well-meaning liberals who wear their allyship on their sleeves, their sweaters, and in the cuffs of their performance outerwear.
In one scene, an effigy of a black person is found swinging from a tree by a noose at the high school after a fraught meeting between the campus’s burgeoning white nationalist group and a clutch of students of color. Audrey, who was present at the initial meeting in order to resolve the conflict, unwittingly takes the fall in the press, arguing that what was clearly a hate crime might be just a lack of empathy manifested in a viciously racist symbol by some high school kids. Her instinct, of course, is to speak out against the carceral state, but she does so without really thinking about or understanding the implications of the crime she seems to sort of defend. These kinds of mental gymnastics are everywhere throughout the show, in every interaction, as if Ball’s intention was to get us to think about every single issue plaguing American society at large, all at once. Conversations that should feel natural are stilted and front as rigorous intellectual discourse, making the viewer feel as if they are trapped in a dinner party with a bunch of people who are eager to unpack their very own invisible knapsacks of white privilege.
The overall effect, as Linda Holmes at NPR thoughtfully points out, is that everyone on the show is essentially reduced to an “other,” which is counterintuitive to the show’s seeming intention. Given Ball’s capacity for exploring family dynamics with grace and humor, as he did in Six Feet Under, I wonder why he chose to go this route instead. The trouble is, the show is entirely humorless; it takes itself as seriously as a college freshmen and is just as tiresome to spend time with.
Further hindering the show artistically is a hint of the supernatural. Ball really hits you over the head with an idea that suggests, from what I’ve seen at least, that all people of color are connected by a shared sense of trauma—manifested through hallucinations, visions, screaming, blood, and the numbers 11:11. The only reason I’d watch the show past these episodes is for the potential payoff of the explanation, though I fear I’d be gravely disappointed.
What ails the modern condition is addressed in every facet, from slut shaming to the patriarchy to liberal snow flakes and everything in between. The trouble is, none of the potentially interesting threads are given the appropriate space for exploration. Cramming every thinkpiece ever written in the year since Trump’s election into an hourlong prestige family drama is not the move. Why not take the time with just one element of the modern condition and explore it with the nuance that it truly deserves? Instead what we have is a show about the anxieties of well-meaning white people, rocked by Trump’s election, dealing with their own emotions in a way that is unfortunately nothing more than self-soothing schlock.