When the crazed eyes of Buffalo Bill are staring into your soul, it’s hard to shake off what he’s saying. Ted Levine, who played that role in “The Silence of the Lambs” and was a recurring guest star this season on “Here and Now,” never lost that look. The one he gave Clarice Starling back in 1991 isn’t far off from what his character, Ike Bayer, plants on Tim Robbins in the Season 1 finale of HBO’s ambitious-but-flawed drama.
“Don’t you feel like something’s wrong?” Ike asks. Robbins’ frustrated philosophy professor, Dr. Greg Boatwright, says, “I do,” and then again, with more conviction, “I do.”
“I’ve always felt that way,” Ike continues. “But it’s gotten worse. It’s outside of me.”
“Yeah,” Greg says, utterly transfixed. “It’s everywhere.”
This, in a nutshell, is what “Here and Now” has been saying for 10 episodes. The world was always a scary place, but the 2016 election — and the resulting chaos — has marked a distinct turning point for the progressive family, if not progressives across the country.
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And creator Alan Ball deserves credit for picking at something so many people don’t know how to grapple with. (He doesn’t have to, after all. He’s got “True Blood” money.) Though virtually all television series can find added relevance when looked at through the prism of post-election politics, few scripted series have actively sought out the conversation on purpose. “SNL” digs in from a sardonic viewpoint, as do other comedies looking to pick apart the D.C.-centric circus. “The Good Fight” is targeting the legalities surrounding Trump’s actions, and “American Horror Story” ineffectively tried to turn malaise into malice by bluntly pegging a season to political fear-mongering.
“Here and Now” is different: It keeps its story within reality, aside from a supernatural element (that could be a sickness), and wants to have an honest talk about what’s gone wrong. It wants to identify that uneasy feeling and provide catharsis if not clarity. Given the tumultuous state of affairs, it’s a message that should be eagerly absorbed by a wide audience; one ready to break down their newfound confusion and concern the way Ike and Greg do here.
That didn’t happen. Be it the series’ pedantic character construction or its vague sense of self-importance, the drama hasn’t connected. It’s been a big miss critically and an equally sizable bomb in the ratings. (It’s HBO’s lowest-rated drama, carrying half the weekly live viewers of the network’s notorious 2016 misfire, “Vinyl.”) Though Ball, the creator of such heralded series as “Six Feet Under” and “True Blood,” has his fans, one has to wonder how many people who tuned in for Sunday night’s hour-long finale were there because they’ve been gripped, week-to-week, or if they simply wanted to know what the heck was going on with all this 11:11 mumbo jumbo.
[Editor’s Note: The following portion of the review contains spoilers for “Here and Now,” Season 1, Episode 10, “It’s Here” — the Season 1 finale.]
Following the cliffhanger in the penultimate episode, where Ramon again acted irrationally after seeing something he should probably suspect isn’t real, the Bayer-Boatwrights divided. Some were angry at Ramon (Daniel Zovatto) for dropping a little girl from a treehouse to save her from imaginary fire, and others came to the defense of a sick young man who was trying to save his niece.
But the question persisted: What are these visions? Ramon keeps seeing the numbers 11:11, various forms of fire, and even hallucinations of ashen people walking toward him wearing face masks — but are they real? And how do they connect to his former therapist, Dr. Farid Shokrani (Peter Macdissi)? His birthday is November 11, and his mother appeared in Ramon’s dream.
Shokrani’s mystery persists, for the most part, after the finale, but Ramon’s connection to 11:11 becomes clear. As Ike and Greg are speaking about their shared fears, the old man’s bedroom clock flips over to 11:11 a.m. “Did you feel that?” Ike asks. Before Greg can answer, we cut to Ramon, who’s standing outside looking at a mountain in the distance. “It’s here,” he says to himself, and the top of Mt. Hood blows off. It’s a volcanic eruption — the event Ramon’s been warned about for the past few weeks, and thus the climax of a season that’s been gearing up for… this?
How does an erupting volcano relate to the growing feeling of American crisis? It’s certainly doesn’t in scope, as the onscreen descriptions of the immediate aftereffects fail to compare to the personal tragedies on display throughout the first season. The results of Mt. Hood’s explosion just don’t seem significant enough to justify the wait. Perhaps the privileged Portlanders who have to wear gas masks and suffer from “severely affected” cell reception are a bit frightened, but that’s simply not broadly comparable to a group of Muslims forced to beat themselves with metallic whips or a young girl and her boyfriend being assaulted for expressing themselves in school.
The pieces fit, but the impact isn’t there. It’s laughable to hear a news anchor plead for citizens to use air filters after spending a season examining much bigger issues. It’s this kind of tone deafness that’s hampered the series all along, so it’s somewhat fitting to see it drag down an ending that does, at least, attempt to explain Ramon’s visions.
Not only does the event occur at 11:11 a.m., but his freak-out during his game demo (in Episode 7, “Wake”) is explained, too. Then, he saw people walking toward him wearing masks, covered in gray ash. The season ends on Ramon approaching the mountain, following a man made of fire (who randomly appeared in Ramon’s game) as ash from the mountain rains down on top of him. He even sees the people again as he makes his ascent.
Answers are all well and good, even if they’re pretty on the nose, but it’s not enough to make the trek worth it. Despite its persistent focus on the supernatural — which ultimately did not pay off (or, as an extreme optimist might argue, hasn’t yet) — “Here and Now” isn’t really about answers. It’s about the discussion. It’s about dealing with the madness.
There’s no easy answer to all of our collective issues, let alone the ones specifically brought up in the series — racism, xenophobia, religious intolerance, fraudulent philanthropists, soundbite news absorption, and more — so framing the season around a mystical reveal probably wasn’t the best idea. Ramon’s revelation wasn’t going to save the world, but it probably should’ve clued the audience in to what he’s going through.
“Here and Now” aimed to engage with America’s cultural climate in a specific way, but, at best, it only acknowledged it. That’s an admirable intention and a frustrating lack of follow-through. There’s certainly not enough rich soil left over to think Season 2 is a good idea, but there are moments that could have a lasting impact.
As Ashley (Jerrika Hinton) is considering whether or not to accept an offer for her company (one that would make her a millionaire), she balks for a second. Her husband, Malcolm (Joe Williamson), is surprised and says, “I guess you convinced me all this money would make us safer. Who knows what’s going to happen in this fucking country?”
Though it’s technically a cliffhanger, it sure seems like Ashley is going to take the offer after that line, which would mean she’s taking a job she doesn’t want because she’s afraid for her family. That’s powerful and specific to this moment in time, even if her dilemma is still maddeningly targeted to an upper-class mentality. Similar tipping points come to Duc (Raymond Lee), as he resolves deep-rooted childhood trauma, and Farid, who does the same while someone white-splains Islam to him. These are faulty in execution, yet honorable in intention. They’re all trying to hone in on the anarchic nature of modern American life.
And then there’s Greg and Ike, two lost men, looking at each other and saying, “What the fuck happened?” The question may be more fitting looking at “Here and Now” than looking through it, but those eyes hold a fire we can all feel. The madness is outside of them. It’s everywhere.
“Here and Now” Season 1 is now streaming in full on HBO.