Alan Ball’s Ambitious ‘Here And Now’ Can’t Stop Tripping Over Its Self-Importance

HBO

In an upcoming episode of HBO’s new drama Here and Now, Greg Boatwright (Tim Robbins), depressed and seeking answers for why his world no longer makes sense, follows a deer into the woods and gets lost. He falls asleep in a torrential rainstorm, and wakes up muddy and confused to find the beautiful creature is now standing in front of him in a clearing. The rain is gone, a dapple of golden sunlight is streaming through the trees, and the setting couldn’t seem more perfect for Greg to receive the wisdom he seeks.

Instead, the deer shits. A lot.

(If it’s not a TV record for on-camera feces, it’s close.)

Now, Greg is a philosophy professor and acclaimed author who has devoted his career to “thinking about thinking.” If ever there were a TV protagonist suited to find valuable insight from this pile of excrement, it would be him. Instead, he storms into an academic conference to bitterly announce, “If a deer shits in the woods, whether you’re there to see it or not, it means nothing. It’s. Just. Shit.”

By this point in viewing Here and Now (it debuts Sunday; I’ve seen four episodes), the viewer may feel a lot like Greg. The series has impressive auspices: created by Emmy and Oscar winner Alan Ball (Six Feet Under, American Beauty), it stars a pair of Oscar winners in Robbins and, as Greg’s therapist wife Audrey Bayer, Holly Hunter. It has a lot to say about race, religion, sexuality, gender, mental health, and the state of the world in 2018. But it’s alternately suffocating and baffling, making almost every character as miserable to each other as they are to watch, and occasionally dropping in bizarre hints suggesting the series might borrow as much from Ball’s work on True Blood as his Six Feet days.

Surely, there must be more to this project than a bunch of oblivious hypocrites treating each other badly, right? There must be some hidden value, some deeper meaning?

Or maybe, as Greg puts it, it’s just… well, you know.

The Bayer-Boatwrights are pillars of the liberal community in Portland. He teaches philosophy, she has a business called The Empathy Project that tries to solve differences peacefully (in an early episode, a high school brings her in to mediate between minority students and those who want to start a white pride group), and they’ve adopted children from Vietnam (Raymond Lee’s Duc), Liberia (Jerrika Hinton’s Ashley), and Colombia (Daniel Zovatto’s Ramon), in addition to their youngest child, biological daughter Kristen (Sosie Bacon). The older siblings are all acutely aware that they were, as Duc puts it, “advertisements for how progressive and evolved our parents were,” and there are various tensions baked into the family: Duc and Ashley resent that Ramon can pass for Caucasian whenever it’s convenient, while Ashley changed her name at 18 from the Liberian one her parents chose to the whitest one she could think of, and later married a white Republican (“You know, before Donald Trump”) as a further act of rebellion. Ramon is gay, and embarrassed by how excited Audrey seems to be about this for what it says about her own politics, while Kristen is both envious of her siblings for not being a boring white girl like her and blind to the privilege this gives her. (When she and Ashley are arrested for getting into a fight with a Planned Parenthood protester, Kristen views the whole thing as an adventure she can post to Instagram, while Ashley is subtly humiliated by a white cop.)

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