HBO got Alan Ball at the right time.
Ball won an Oscar in 2000 for writing American Beauty. Shortly thereafter, in 2001, with HBO's drama brand still in its infancy (The Sopranos was a couple of seasons old), he created Six Feet Under for the network. Both it and later Ball's True Blood were fundamental to HBO's growth, and now, the network is ready to introduce his new show.
Here and Now stars Tim Robbins as a philosophy professor and Holly Hunter as his wife, a former therapist who runs dispute resolution interventions for schools. They live in Portland, Ore. (of course). They have three grown children: Duc (Raymond Lee), who was adopted from Vietnam; Ramon (Daniel Zovatto), who was adopted from Colombia; and Ashley (Jerrika Hinton), who was adopted from Liberia. They also have a 17-year-old biological daughter, Kristen (Sosie Bacon). We also meet a family headed by a therapist and his wife (she's Muslim, he's now not religious), whose son Navid (Marwan Salama) identifies as "genderfluid, but not at school."
Ball seems to want Here and Now to be a sprawling tale of the particular moment in which American culture finds itself. According to the materials from HBO introducing the show, it's about "what it's like to be an 'other' today." But there are more kinds of "others" than one show can claim to speak for, and rather than focusing on one and telling a full story, Ball seems determined to get at every kind of "other" he can think of and cram them into one show. He wants to consider fraught American conditions around race, around romantic relationships, gender identity, class, sexual activity, family, policing, aging, mental health ... did we leave anything out? Ah yes — there's maybe some supernatural stuff going on. Or maybe not.
In the four episodes that HBO offered to critics, the show stumbles upon moments of clarity that seem promising, particularly when Kristen loses her temper and gets arrested in the company of her sister, Ashley. For Kristen, who's white, being arrested is just another youthful experience to have. It's sort of funny. For Ashley, who's black, it's humiliating and frightening, in part because she's treated entirely differently and in part because her understanding of what could go wrong is much more advanced. Had the show been able to stick with the complicated relationships that these siblings have, and with their sense that they were part of their parents' plan to be perfectly and roundly progressive, that would have been something around which to construct a show.
But Ball is trying to do so much at the same time that it often feels effortful. Perhaps later, more will be added to the story of this queer Muslim teenager, and obviously there's much to explore that's rarely explored on TV. But for the first several times you see him, he acts in the story as a character description — queer Muslim teenager — rather than as a person. He's almost a hypothetical: What would this father do if his son were queer? He exists, thus far, simply to be reacted to by the people around him. In a way, he is an "other," even on this show.
The complication here is that this is a particularly tough show to review from the four episodes that HBO offered. It would be easy for Ball, or for the network, to say, "Just wait. All will become clear! Threads will be knitted together!" That would be only an extension of the increasingly common insistence by creators and networks that serialized television dramas should be thought of as very long films. There will eventually be ten episodes in this season of Here and Now, and you could certainly watch all of them, hoping for a payoff at the end. You might get one.
But given how much good stuff there is to watch and read and hear, people generally don't wait that long. Particularly when you are releasing one episode per week in the traditional television fashion, and not all at once like you might on some streaming platforms, you are making episodic television. Each episode is a unit. Each episode has to serve as the enticement to watch the next one after a break in which other entertainments will intervene. It's hard enough to get people to watch a show past a pilot episode that spends a lot of its time doing setup and exposition work; asking them to go farther than four episodes hoping that the focus that's missing will develop? That's even harder, particularly when there's not a lot of humor in the writing and the show tends to slip into prestige drama cliches.
[On that topic: Please, no more scenes where people meet deer and look meaningfully into their eyes. Even if you think you're using that cliche in an interesting way, there's got to be another visual representation of a significant moment of silent awakening.]
Here and Now could say more if it were trying to do less. As it's been structured, it's wider than it is deep, more of an attempt to map the entire terrain of being an "other" than to actually visit any of it.
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