‘Here and Now’ flirted with excellent ideas, but drowned in toxic righteousness

There’s a version of Here and Now, a cool version, where it starred Laura Dern and Woody Harrelson instead of Holly Hunter and Tim Robbins, where it was written by a really talented African-American or Asian-American author, and was for the past 10 weeks the coolest show on television. Instead, we got the geeky Alan Ball Here and Now that absolutely nobody watched and, despite being occasionally pretty moving, succumbed to a poisonous white liberalism not seen since NBC’s The Slap aired three years ago. I’ve written about Here and Now before, but for catch-up, it focused on an upper-middle-class Portland couple (Hunter, Robbins) with a few grown-up adoptive children from various third-world countries, and one teenage biological daughter. In post-Trump America, the parents and children all experience various forms of social unpleasantness while one son, Ramon, starts to lose his mind and is sent to a Muslim psychiatrist called Farid. Farid’s son Navid is experimenting with gender fluidity, and soon befriends Kristen (the biological daughter). Robbins’s character Greg is caught by Hunt’s Audrey sleeping with a Japanese prostitute.

As you can see, there’s a lot going on with this show, and it certainly had a lot to say. Principally, that diversity is good, racism is bad and most conflict can be resolved through sensible debate. So, pretty much nothing new. If it felt a little/a lot tediously derivative for much of its self-serious running time, Here and Now allowed for fun moments too. The show’s standout characters, Kristen and Navid, donning horse and chicken masks and spraying the school’s swastika-spraying mean girls with black dye to the sound of “I Love It” by Icona Pop was one of the most absurdly gleeful TV moments of the year so far. The short-lived romance between the two characters was believable, touching and really unique. As was that, in the first few episodes, between Ramon and bearded boyfriend Henry. Even Audrey and Greg had their moments. Alan Ball does sexual dynamics better than anyone, and even the weakest hours of Here and Now had glimpses of the genius he showed in American Beauty and Six Feet Under (and, to a much, much lesser extent, True Blood).

But Here and Now always came back to its worst qualities, embodied in an Episode 2 scene where Audrey is called into the high school to moderate an argument between black and latino students, and a ‘white pride’ group. There isn’t even an attempt at interesting writing: Audrey just tells the students to think about each other’s feelings, and the conflict is resolved within seconds. When the swastikas arrive on lockers by Episode 7, nobody even mentions the previous issue; the season feels totally disjointed at times, unsurprising considering the number of writers and directors (a group as diverse as the Bayer Boatwright children) sharing credit throughout. Greg drives into the woods at the end of one episode; at the start of the next, he meets a deer, then leaves immediately. His later misfortunes include pulling a gun during one of his terrible philosophy lectures, having his favourite student/protege dying freakishly and hanging out in his kids’ treehouse looking sad. In fairness, Greg was occasionally a pretty interesting character (almost everyone on Here and Now had their moments), and the oft-underrated Robbins brought a lot to the show. Hunter, however, was just extremely poorly cast, and Audrey was a character who needed more time to be fleshed out (similar to the grandmother character on Parenthood).

What I haven’t even mentioned yet is the nonsense 11:11 supernatural element of the show, a pointless undercurrent worthy more of late-period M. Night Shyamalan than the Leftovers vibe it was clearly aiming for. Ramon’s butterfly-themed video game, his dreams and shrink Farid’s violent Iranian childhood converged bizarrely over the 10 episodes, the only real benefit being the chance to see Tim Robbins play with VR at a gaming expo. The payoff for this strand, some of which I honestly fast-forwarded in the later episodes, was Farid whipping himself brutally in the basement, and Ramon cycling towards a surprise volcanic eruption so insane and uncalled-for that I think it might quietly be the cleverest thing about this whole silly, silly show.

In the near-impossible circumstances that HBO renew Here and Now for a second season, I would enthusiastically tune in. As tone-deaf as this series would suggest he is, I can’t imagine Alan Ball is blinkered enough not to pay attention to how the public received this season, so we could get a really improved second run if he got the chance. The Bayer-Boatwright family turned out to be a pretty interesting bunch: no Bravermans or Garveys, mind you, but deserving of some nuanced examination. Unlike so many modern shows (hey, Westworld), I didn’t feel like my time was being wasted watching Here and Now, and I don’t regret sticking with it. Unfortunately, I am likely the only person on earth — including Alan Ball — who feels that way.