A new series by Alan Ball is always a much-anticipated event. His latest, “Here and Now,” comes across like a mix of qualities from his successful works: family drama that recalls “Six Feet Under” (whose creator he was), insights about contemporary America like those in “American Beauty” (his screenplay), and nods at the supernatural reminiscent of “True Blood” (creator). It’s an unexpected, non-uniform fusion that suffers from significant weaknesses, but is also frank and ambitious.
The family drama, which premiered February 11 on HBO, is set in Portland, Oregon, and follows the relationship between two idealistic parents (Tim Robbins and Holly Hunter). In addition to a biological daughter, they have three grown children whom they adopted from countries that the United States has “fucked up,” as one of the characters puts it.
Ramon, from Colombia, is studying video game design in college; Ashley, from Liberia, owns a fashion website; and Vietnam-born Duc is a life coach who describes himself as a “motivational architect.” Things could have been wonderful, he says, if the three of them didn't have to be “advertisements for how progressive and evolved our parents were.”
All the series' characters try to follow the path of the mantra for which the father of the family, an eminent philosophy professor and writer, gained fame: There is no such thing as the past - “right now is all that exists.” Ball makes it clear, however, that things are more complex than that. The past does exist and it haunts everyone. Fragmentary memories of childhood in the countries they were born surface in the dreams of the adopted children, or flash through their minds while they zap randomly during television commercials.
The series examines the emotional freight carried by the family members through questions of roots, belief and sexuality. They personify and mirror the social tensions and rifts of present-day America.
Just when it seems that “Here and Now” would be another wearying, overly academic series about a dysfunctional liberal family, its characters mere conduits for conveying a political take on the situation in America, the exceptional fusion with a supernatural plot enters. Ramon (Daniel Zovatto) suffers from weird visions and constantly sees the time as being 11:11 (a phenomenon that has gained a reputation of sorts as possessing mystical significance outside the series as well). Ramon believes, as do the others in the family, that he is afflicted with a mental disorder. He isn’t aware that these visions possess some sort of metaphysical meaning. Even without the supernatural element – which against all odds breathes life into the plot – the character of Ramon injects emotion that is as necessary as it is authentic into the series.
Ball, who is one of the most prominent and influential voices of the LGBT community, demonstrates once more his immense skill in depicting a romantic relationship between two men. On top of the excellent casting of Ramon and his male partner, Henry (Andy Bean), the sexual relations and the emotional intimacy that develop between the two is charming and moving. They leave us with the feeling that their characters both have more depth and more of a beating heart than the others in the series.
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All the other plotlines derive from identity politics in Trump-era America (the president is referred to by name in the series). Ball has a great deal to say about religion, sexuality, race, gender, mental health, aging, liberal hypocrisy and depression in 2018 America. In the four episodes made available to reviewers by HBO, he is largely successful in getting across persuasive arguments about each of those issues, though in sum they don’t really cohere into a lucid or inspirational voice.
Above all, the manifesto-like tone blocks the characters’ ability to appear more genuine and less like the advertisements they complain about. The parents in particular are unbearable clichés of wretched liberals. Even if this is deliberate, in the contemporary television climate it’s hard to find a more tiresome protagonist than an academic in the midst of an existential crisis.
Nevertheless, the series does manage to take off, because Ball hasn’t lost his touch for distilling beautiful moments out of the general misery. The siblings may have serious emotional issues with their parents, but their own bonds are resilient and convincing. There are also scenes that interweave precisely love and anxiety in today’s America. One example is when Ramon’s psychiatrist tells his own gender-fluid son that he doesn’t care what he wears or whether he’s attracted to boys or girls. As a Muslim in America, the father’s true anxiety is related to his child's physical safety: He asks his son not to wear a hijab outside the house not out of anger or lack of empathy, but only to ensure that he won’t be assaulted.
With Alan Ball as the creator, and with two Oscar-winning actors – Tim Robbins and Holly Hunter – “Here and Now” should have been HBO's next prestigious drama. As in Ball’s previous series, it has a potent core of an unconventional family, fine acting by all and a plot that raises complex questions.
But despite the broad sweep of the characters, the series suffers from a monotonal voice, a kind of uniform filter through which almost everyone looks artificial and appallingly poster-like. Ball, who has admitted in interviews how enraged and frustrated he is with the social and political situation in the United States, allows his depression and that of his protagonists to become a cloud that hangs over the plot, and thereby inhibits it from becoming the television event it wishes to be.