‘Here and Now’ is a great experiment gone wrong

Sunday, February 18, 2018 - 6:24pm

"Here and Now"

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HBO

Maybe the strangest thing to come out of the rise of the television antihero was the writers’ room assumption that if viewers could root for the flawed and morally ambiguous — the Don Drapers and Tony Sopranos — surely we would find it in ourselves to extend that empathy to the downright insufferable.

Sometimes, if executed well, we actually might; “Girls” and “You’re the Worst” come to mind. But that’s not the case with “Here and Now,” a new HBO series from Alan Ball (“Six Feet Under”) that feels simultaneously overstuffed and empty, all while serving up perhaps the most unpleasant bunch of characters in recent TV history.

At the center of the show is the Portland-based Bayer-Boatwright family, led by matriarch Audrey (Holly Hunter, “The Big Sick”) — a conflict resolution specialist and director of one-woman nonprofit The Empathy Initiative — and her husband Greg (Tim Robbins, “The Brink”), a washed-up philosophy professor.

The couple has three grown, adopted children, each varying degrees of unlikable: Vietnamese Duc (Raymond Lee, “Mozart in the Jungle”), a “motivational architect” whose job appears to involve little more than barking meaningless platitudes at his Instagram followers while being paid an infuriatingly large sum of money for it; Liberian Ashley (Jerrika Hinton, “Grey’s Anatomy”), the owner of an online fashion boutique; and Colombian Ramon (Daniel Zovatto, “Fear the Walking Dead”), a video game designer. The Bayer-Boatwrights also have a biological daughter, the whiny 17-year-old Kristen, who unconvincingly maintains her contentment being “the boring white chick in the family.”

For Greg and Audrey, Berkeley alums who met at a protest for disarmament, this multiracial family is the living embodiment of their progressive dream for America. But things are different now. Donald Trump won the election. The truth doesn’t matter anymore. White supremacy is on the rise. And even Portland — the self-styled progressive utopia — isn’t safe from any of this. “We lost, folks,” says Greg, at his birthday dinner in the first episode. “I look back on this great experiment that is our family and I wonder, I really do wonder, did any of it make any difference?”

And so the show finds itself very much in the here and now, keenly aware of its place in the Trump era. But instead of capturing the mood of America, Ball’s answer to this peculiar time is a bizarre, whirlwind tour through every hot-button issue imaginable, never quite stopping to give any of them the time or depth they deserve. Each character throws around buzzwords (“genderqueer,” “slutshaming”) with the avidity and preachiness of a college freshman home for Thanksgiving break, recently mindblown by the first two months of Introduction to Sociology and simply dying to tell you all about it. There’s plenty of talking about plenty of different things — abortion, policing, gender identity, white pride, religion and political correctness — but for all that talking, it’s remarkable how little is actually said.

As if that weren’t enough material, there’s also a hint of the supernatural — Ramon, the golden child of the family, begins experiencing hallucinations, and the number 11:11 seems to be haunting him. It’s in this storyline that the show begins to find its real narrative and emotional core, which lies not in any of the Bayer-Boatwrights, but with Dr. Farid Shokrani (an excellent Peter Macdissi, “Six Feet Under”), Ramon’s psychiatrist.

At home with Dr. Shokrani, his wife Layla (Necar Zadegan, “Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce”) and his son Navid (Marwan Salama, “American Crime”) is where we finally get characters worth caring about. Like the Bayer-Boatwrights, the Shokranis have problems of their own; they disagree about how to practice their Muslim faith and worry that Navid’s gender fluidity will put him in danger. But unlike the Bayer-Boatwrights, they actually come across as real people, not television characters.

And that’s the fundamental problem with “Here and Now.” It’s so obvious what Ball is trying to do here that nearly every scene, every miserable character, every piece of dialogue seems inauthentic, carefully constructed to get some heavy-handed message across. The result is a disingenuous, self-involved rumination on upper middle class ennui that doesn’t accomplish any of the things it’s clearly trying to.