'Here and Now': TV Review

You'll need a lot of patience.

There's potential inside Alan Ball's new HBO drama with Holly Hunter and Tim Robbins, but it needs to get past the hot-mess family presentation and make up its mind about what kind of show it will be.

Since it often plays like This Is Us with sex, and it's never shy about concocting emotion at every turn, there's definitely going to be an audience for HBO's Here and Now, the new drama from Six Feet Under and True Blood creator Alan Ball. There's a secret at the heart of the show as well, but one that has weirder, more paranormal roots. Oh, and Here and Now also wants to take on Trump, post-election depression, possibly some liberal idealism and race absolutely, with some gender issues in there as well, plus gay and possibly trans culture, the notion of fluid sexuality, Muslims, aging and empathy.

The show is a pretty big pot in which to stir around this giant stew of ideas from Ball, who writes the first two episodes and directs the pilot. Ambitiousness is not a problem with Here and Now. But there are definite issues in the four episodes HBO sent for review as the series tries to figure out, without much success, just what show it wants to be.

It appears that the first impetus is to take a crack at what it's like to be disappointed, frustrated liberals in the present-day United States. After all, Holly Hunter is Audrey Bayer-Boatwright, a former therapist and specialist in empathy who admits that her role in life has basically been trying to save the world. She's married to Greg Boatwright (Tim Robbins), a philosopher who has also embraced empathy, kindness and living in the present to make a better world. They met, not surprisingly, at UC Berkeley.

Later, they adopted three children from countries where the U.S. had "committed reprehensible things" — Vietnam, Liberia and Colombia. Everybody now lives in Portland, Oregon, which sounds like an episode of Portlandia but isn't.

The elder two children, now grown, are Duc (Raymond Lee) and Ashley (Jerrika Hinton), who resent their parents for parading them around like some feel-good experiment in multiculturalism. (Duc is pronounced "Duke" on the show and Ashley changed her name to the whitest thing possible once she turned 18 because nobody could pronounce the Liberian name her parents gave her.) Both are also a little resentful that the third adopted child, Ramon (Daniel Zovatto), had it the easiest of all, mostly because he doesn't look like he comes from Colombia, they say — he looks white. The Bayer-Boatwrights then had their own biological daughter, Kristen (Sosie Bacon), who lives her life relentlessly annoyed that she's basically a boring slice of white bread in one big eclectic family.

Almost immediately the trouble with Here and Now is that all these people, except Ramon, are unlikable. Over the course of the first four hours, this barely shifts. Part of the reason Ramon works is that he's not designed to be too quirky or talky, and thus annoying, like the others. Ramon also is gay, and his burgeoning relationship with Henry (Andy Bean) is the most real, believable and interesting part of the show.

Ramon also has what appear to be delusions, or paranormal activity, and these visions — particularly seeing the numbers "11-11" in some context — hint at a Lost-like sub-story that doesn't remotely seem to match the soapy drama, but Here and Now benefits from the added intrigue. 

This is especially true when Ramon begins to see a psychiatrist, Farid Shokrani (Peter Macdissi), who is not only connected in some way to Ramon's initial visions but is interesting in his own right. He's a deeply conflicted Muslim whose wife, Minou (Necar Zadegan), is annoyed that he won't embrace the faith and whose son, Navid (Marwan Salama), is "gender fluid," wearing both makeup and a hijab at home. (Navid has promised his parents, who fear for his safety, that he won't wear them outside.)

When Here and Now focuses on Ramon (and Henry) or the Shokranis, it has extra depth. These all are characters who feel real and grounded, and have stories you want to follow. However, it remains debatable at this point whether the detours into Ramon's visions will add value since that thread is maddeningly teased out. When the show is at its most preachy, or too on the nose with its talk about race, that paranormal element almost feels like the only part keeping the hook set. But even after four episodes, there's not much forward momentum or explanation; hopefully that will speed up, otherwise the Bayer-Boatwright family better start to matter in a hurry.

Whether viewers will take to the rest of the characters will have a lot to do with how much annoyance they can take from the earnest, soapy and sappy parts that don't fully work as prestige-level drama, at least in the early going. It's hard to tell if Ball wants viewers to like Robbins' and Hunter's characters or if we're meant to see them as idealistic hippies turned narcissistic bourgeoisie — cracking up mentally in Trump's America, their children (save Ramon) shallow adults rejecting them and their ideals in the process — and thus celebrate the fate of the parents.

Since that seems highly unlikely coming from Ball, there's a real problem with presentation.

Given all of Ramon's fugue-state visions, there's undoubtedly a bigger twist coming to Here and Now. The Bayer-Boatwrights as we see them might either be forced to change entirely or the whole clan might not be entirely what we think it is — either plot diversion would become a welcome detour to the current storyline. As they stand now, with self-interest and not entirely believable motivations and discussions among them, they seem like a labored TV creation, not a representation of a believable, atypical American family.

Cast: Holly Hunter, Tim Robbins, Daniel Zovatto, Raymond Lee, Jerrika Hinton, Sosie Bacon, Andy Bean, Necar Zadegan, Peter Macdissi, Marwan Salama, Joe Williamson, Avynn Crowder-Jones
Written and created by Alan Ball
Pilot directed by: Alan Ball
Feb. 11, 10 p.m., HBO