A HBO series featuring Holly Hunter and Tim Robbins should be cause for celebration. Unfortunately, the new Alan Ball family drama “Here and Now” strands its cast in episodes that are as undercooked as they are interminable.
In “Here and Now,” Hunter and Robbins play the well-meaning, progressive parents of four children of different races (the three oldest were adopted; the youngest, a high schooler, is their biological child). The show tries to be a few different things: A meditation on the state of political and interpersonal discourse in a polarized America; a sprawling story of two families in Portland who become linked; and an exploration of mental illness, the efficacies of self-help philosophies and the possibilities of mystical intuition.
If only these thematic strands didn’t involve people who are mostly insufferable.
So much free-floating resentment and generalized irritation pervades “Here and Now” that it’s easy to wonder if some of the characters — even those who are related or married — actually like one another. Parties, family dinners and professional conferences alike serve as opportunities for disaffected characters to talk at rather than to each other.
And while one might argue that this is the very problem that “Here and Now” seeks to expose, watching pedantic debates play out among poorly developed characters is both boring and predictable. It’s as if someone brought my post-election Facebook feed to life — a “Black Mirror” premise that should never happen.
Time and again, “Here and Now” picks up hot-button topics like racism, sexism, transphobia and xenophobia only to put them down again indecisively. At first, it’s promising that men and women of color get to discuss how much white fragility surrounds them in an allegedly tolerant community. But the show turns lazy and incurious when it comes to examining that kind of knee-jerk defensiveness, where it comes from and how it might be effectively checked.
All in all, the drama does not interrogate challenging topics; it occasionally pokes at them before returning to its usual glib, condescending superficiality. Much of the drama, after all, revolves around the depression and midlife crisis of Robbins’ professor character — a respected, well-off white man turning 60 — and Hunter’s role is quite limited; her character is the kind of controlling, worrywart mother often glimpsed in shows with much less impressive pedigrees.
“Here and Now” does feature occasional moments of visual poetry, but it’s disappointing in almost every area that matters. There is room on the TV scene for an ambitious, provocative drama about an American family (creator Alan Ball’s “Six Feet Under” was that kind of show until it descended into sourness in its final stages). And there’s no doubt that the very real fissures in our society could use some thoughtful excavation. But “Here and Now” is like the liberal-progressive, scripted-TV opposite of those news stories in which reporters visit the “heartland” to talk to hard-core Trump supporters: It isn’t telling us anything we don’t already know, and the repetition of certain key talking points — which sometimes don’t hold up under scrutiny — doesn’t actually advance any worthwhile conversations.
The press materials for “Here and Now” warn critics away from revealing the show’s “twists,” but those take forever to arrive and thus often feel drained of consequence when they do. Most of the time, the family headed by Robbins and Hunter squabble in a series of tasteful settings, and only gently examine their various forms of privilege as they saunter through their well-appointed Portland homes. The three non-biological children, who are from Colombia, Somalia and Vietnam, complain about being used as advertisements for their parents’ liberal views, and the show indicates that trauma in at least two of their families of origin may have lasting effects in the present day. But in the first four episodes, these ideas are hinted at rather than developed in ways that draw the viewer deeper into each character’s journey.