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.)
With the exception of Ramon and his new boyfriend Henry (Andy Bean), a barista at a combination laundry/cafe, the main characters feel less like people than avatars for the sociological arguments Ball wants to make about liberal hypocrisy and depression in Trump’s America. Those two are also, not coincidentally, among the few people on the show — other exceptions include Iranian-born shrink Farid Shokrani (Peter Macdissi, who’s also one of the show’s executive producers), his wife Layla (Necar Zadegan), and their gender fluid teenager Navid (Marwan Salama) — who aren’t instantly loathsome. Six Feet Under had an unfortunate tendency to wallow in the misery of its family, and at times seemed determined to make the audience suffer along with them; Here and Now starts at that point. Ball and his collaborators have a lot to say about life as we know it, but their messengers are fundamentally off-putting. (After a while, main character Nate Fisher’s abrasive self-righteousness became the toll Six Feet viewers had to pay to get to the better stories involving the rest of the family; this is a show largely populated with Nate Fishers.) The stories in the early going are mostly so ephemeral and low-stakes — Why isn’t anyone coming to Ashley’s daughter’s birthday party? Does “motivational architect” Duc want Greg to write the foreword to his new book? How will the smugly celibate Duc react when Ashley’s husband Malcolm (Joe Williamson) tries to fix him up with a woman? — that they only work involving people the audience is much more willing to invest in than this group(*).
(*) This is a problem almost every family drama grapples with at some point, where the lack of a significant professional outlet to help generate story (or semi-professional, in the case of the Friday Night Lights football team) can lead creators to pile misfortune after misfortune upon the regulars to the point of sadism. Some family shows, like Parenthood or Once and Again, learn the right balance; others like Here and Now or, in its second season, This Is Us, start to treat trauma and drama as interchangeable. Likability also winds up mattering far more in a setting like this than in a show about, say, an arrogant but gifted doctor, or cop, or drug kingpin, because you’re focusing on watching those jerks do their jobs well; we get glimpses of different Bayer-Boatwrights at work (Ashley runs an online clothing company), but that all exists in a distant second place to the corrosive interpersonal dynamics.
Other than Ramon and Henry’s budding relationship, which feels detailed and lived-in rather than existing solely as a position paper, the first episode is such a joyless slog that I was prepared to give up after it, pedigree or no. Then something happens in the final scene that’s so strange and divorced from the rest of the show, I decided to keep going for a bit to see if the whole pilot wasn’t some kind of alienating Trojan horse for an entirely different series than what had been promised.
This proved not to be the case. The next three episodes are largely more of the same, pausing the various rants and mortifications at random intervals to offer hints of this weird, alternate, potentially supernatural show, only to jump right back into the muck with Greg, the deer, and everyone else.
Ball (who also produced Banshee for Cinemax) is one of the most successful and important creative talents in HBO history. When he came in to pitch an Important Drama about The Way We Live Now, with Hunter and Robbins attached as the leads, is it any wonder HBO execs said yes? It’s plenty ambitious, but an ambitious failure, where the more you make like Greg and try to think about what the characters are thinking, the more unbearable most of it becomes.