Alan Ball’s “Here and Now” is a frustrating mess, a show that struggles to find its own identity and fills that black hole with pretentious twaddle about our national unease in 2018 and a sense of self-importance that approaches parody. Ball has been a pioneer for HBO with the still-powerful “Six Feet Under” and the cultural phenomenon that was “True Blood,” but this is a total misfire, a show that wastes a talented cast on, well, nothing. It’s a family drama about a family that’s nearly impossible to care about, and Ball’s attempts at cultural commentary or, worse, a deeper understanding of our place in the world, lead to a show with no actual characters. They’re all mouthpieces for a writer who’s as lost in the woods as his leading man, a guy who falls asleep in one episode only to wake up and see a deer near him. The deer shits. A lot. It’s a perfect analogy for the show itself—something that looks pretty but produces nothing but waste.
The Bayer-Boatwrights are a perfect TV model of the progressive, modern family—so, of course, they have to be totally screwed up. Greg (Tim Robbins) is a philosophy professor who’s basically coming unhinged, disagreeing with his own published opinions about compassion and empathy on his way to a 3/4s-life crisis. The premiere hinges on a lavish birthday party for Greg, an event that doesn’t preclude him from keeping his regular appointment with a hooker, and culminates in a truly depressing speech about all the ignorance, hatred, terror, and rage in the world—which is used as voiceover for a scene in which Greg’s daughter loses her virginity. Yes, subtlety is not exactly on the menu here.
Said daughter is named Kristen (Sosie Bacon), and she’s joined on this unique family tree by three adopted siblings, Ashley (Jerrika Hinton), Duc (Raymond Lee), and Ramon (Daniel Zovatto), who gets the most interesting arc to start the season. Ramon, shortly after starting a significant relationship with a man named Henry (Andy Bean), begins to see connections in the world that not all of us can see—think the “plastic bag” scene in Ball’s “American Beauty” for a reference point, but a little scarier. Primarily, Ramon starts seeing the number 11 paired, whether it’s on a clock, the price of something he buys, etc. The numbers lead him to a psychiatrist named Farid (Peter Macdissi), with whom Ramon appears to have a strange connection. The Ramon/Farid arc is the most satisfying of the first few episodes because it has focus that the rest of the show lacks. Too often, the Bayer-Boatwrights are just milling around as Ball tries to figure out what “Here and Now” is about. Ashley flirts with a male model, despite her happy marriage. Duc is a bit obsessive about his life-coaching and claims to be asexual. And the matriarch of the family, Audrey (Holly Hunter) gets embroiled in a racial drama at one of the schools for which she consults about conflict resolution.
Every time “Here and Now” threatens to allow its undeniably talented cast to develop characters, they do something that is so clearly a writer’s contrivance that the whole exercise falls apart again. Whether it’s the aforementioned deer scene, the party speech, or Greg yelling to his students “Love somebody! Hate somebody! Stop fucking thinking!,” the show constantly reminds you that it’s a show. Couples spit out wisdom like “Forget the past, don’t worry about the future,” and you want to scream “nobody talks like this!” It’s a domestic drama with unbelievable dialogue, which just makes it as hollow as anything I’ve seen on television in a long time. It’s a show with almost no subtlety and yet almost no plot—which is almost a feat within itself. The real tragedy is that there are beats that are likable—I enjoyed most of the growing relationship between Ramon and Henry, because it felt genuine, but so much of “Here and Now” does not.