Through four episodes, it’s unclear what “Here and Now” is actually about. Fitting given its vague title, but confounding overall, the new HBO series pivots from a strong, focused pilot into an ongoing story that’s too sprawling for its own good. Allegorically, creator Alan Ball asks if the grand American experiment has failed; if the melting pot has cracked and chaos is all that remains. Practically, his series uses one family to represent the country and, by living their day-to-day lives, answer such lofty questions.
That’s an excellent canvas on which to paint, but “Here and Now” looks more like a messy Jackson Pollock knockoff than the refined post-modern portrait it tries to be. It’s colorful and easy to stare at, somewhat befuddled, but a connection has yet to be forged. Packed with too many individual plot lines, this is an interpersonal drama that needs room to breathe — and that’s obvious long before a supernatural twist threatens to take over the story.
Setting that aside (for fear of spoilers), Ball’s “True Blood” follow-up is a bluntly issue-driven experiment unto itself. Police discrimination, religious persecution, and women’s rights, among other topics de jour, are all touched upon if not thoroughly explored in the first four hours. The show is searching for purpose by analyzing every social issue imaginable and using its characters as thinly veiled talking heads, but few of them feel real enough to answer any of humanity’s age-old queries or developing concerns.
As a result, the show feels like it exists in a parallel universe. Primarily tracking a Portland-based family of liberal-minded adults, “Here and Now” is based around a concept most shows retrofit after coming up with the plot: Each family member represents a different ethnicity, sexuality, or otherwise distinguishable demographic. Two heterosexual ex-hippies, played by Tim Robbins and Holly Hunter, raise biological and adopted children, most of whom are now grown, one of whom is married with a child of her own, and all of whom are struggling to find happiness.
Ashley (Jerrika Hinton) works for a clothing website, a job her activist mother Audrey (Holly Hunter) thinks is “easy” compared to saving the world. But don’t worry: She meant that as a compliment, and she’s equally sincere in her disdain for Ashley’s conservative husband, Malcolm (Joe Williamson). But he’s part of the family now, and not only by marriage: Malcolm is best friends with Duc (Raymond Lee), Ashley’s adopted Vietnamese brother who works as a highly successful “motivational architect.”
Ramon (Daniel Zovatto) is a little less well-off, living in an apartment paid for by his adopted parents pay for. But he’s going to school for video game design, just got a hunky new boyfriend, Henry (Andy Bean), and is close with his parents’ one biological child, Kristen (Sosie Bacon). Sosie’s in high school, but she’s extremely intelligent, open-minded, and opinionated. She’s also the only non-minority child in the family. The Bayer-Boatwright family consists of two Caucasian parents, one black daughter, one Vietnamese son, one Colombian son (who’s also gay), and a heterosexual white daughter, who complains about being boring.
And even with six people in the core family, “Here and Now” takes on even more characters. When Ramon needs help, he goes to see Dr. Farid Shokrani (Peter Macdissi, who also serves as a producer), and his family is slowly brought in as series regulars, too. It’s hard to complain about this specific expansion given how terrific Macdissi is as a performer and how relevant his story feels, comparatively and personally, but the expansion overall illustrates a lack of focus. These folks could almost all sustain their own show, and instead they’re sharing one.
Because of the time crunch, each potentially unique individual is forced into a box: Duc is the overly disciplined, overly competitive kid seeking approval from his dad. Ashley is the mom who resents all her responsibility. Kristen is the rebellious, know-it-all teenager. Ramon is truly special, but only in that he has weird stuff happen to him.
“Here and Now” is filled with compelling performances, specifically from Macdissi and Hunter, but they can’t overcome an unnerving sense of artificiality. From the characters built around talking points to the family dynamic itself, the whole show feels written — overwritten. Few moments happen naturally instead of being manipulated for an educational purpose; so much so that when nuance sneaks in, it’s jarring. There’s talk of a dark, scary world that everyone fears, but rarely does anyone get to see it. Most of the action takes place within the Bayer-Boatwright bubble. Everyone respects everyone’s choices. Reason wins out. Arguments are heard, instead of shouted over. If something unsettling does happen, it’s seen through a filter; as if they knowingly stepped out of one bubble and into another, careful not to pop the progressive “Pleasantville” they’ve formed.
All of this actually plays pretty well in the pilot. Events are geared around the night’s big birthday party for Greg (Tim Robbins), so making time to introduce each family member is necessary. A grand speech explaining the patriarch’s crisis isn’t just expected, it’s welcome. But after three more hours, it’s clear that was the only moment in which the many plots tie together cleanly. Greg questioning if the grand experiment has failed is the only moment that felt like it was setting something up, and whatever’s next has yet to arrive. The wait may not be unbearable; sure, you’ll cringe when certain socially conscious plot points are forced in, but an eerie fascination creeps over you, too. There’s just nothing here right now to indicate a meaningful payoff is coming.
“Here and Now” premieres Sunday, February 11 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.