After the long-running successes of ‘Six Feet Under’ and ‘True Blood’, producer Alan Ball was likely granted carte blanche to do whatever he wanted at HBO. With the premiere of his new series ‘Here and Now’, I’m not sure that’s really a good idea.
Frankly, after watching the pilot episode, I’m not even sure what the hell this show is supposed to be. The vague and generic title (which appears to be a last-minute substitution for something equally vague and generic) suggests that neither Ball nor the network have a very clear idea of that either. Looking at the show’s IMDb and Wikipedia pages reveals that most of the characters underwent name changes between the time the project was announced and the time it aired, implying rewrites and reshoots stemming from network notes and/or test screening feedback.
In the final version that made it to broadcast, Tim Robbins stars as Gregory Boatwright, a Portland, OR philosophy professor experiencing a late-life crisis on the eve of his 60th birthday. Decades of pondering the human condition have left him depressed upon the realization that the only thing he knows for certain about life is that he doesn’t know a damn thing about it. His wife, Audrey (fellow Oscar winner Holly Hunter), is a classic Type-A personality with no time for her husband’s existential angst. She spends most of the premiere planning an elaborate birthday party that Greg clearly doesn’t want, uninterested in his wishes about the matter.
As high-minded progressives, Greg and Audrey adopted a multi-ethnic brood of kids, all grown now. The first we meet is slacker twenty-something Ramon (Daniel Zovatto), who opens the episode having a weird nightmare about a woman on a beach calling his name and clawing her own face off. For a long time, this seems to be a non-sequitur that has nothing to do with anything else. Ramon is both Hispanic and gay, making him a minority two-fer that his mother is especially proud to gloat about. On the day of the party, he hooks up with a barista from his laundromat (the fact that a laundromat would have a coffee bar is sooo Portland) and brings him along. All through the day, he notices recurrences of the numbers 11:11 and starts to think that the universe is sending him messages about something.
Black daughter Ashley (Jerrika Hinton) is a fashion web site entrepreneur who hasn’t exactly cheated on her doting husband yet but sure comes awfully close to it. She shamelessly flirts with a male model and invites him to the party without telling him that she’s married or that her husband and young daughter will be there.
Vietnamese son Duc (Raymond Lee) is a self-proclaimed “Motivational Architect,” which is a BS way of saying that he’s an unlicensed therapist and self-help guru who makes depressed housewives feel better about themselves.
Audrey and Greg’s only biological child is 17-year-old Kristen (Sosie Bacon, daughter of Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick), a flighty pothead who laments both her boring whiteness and her virginity. Perpetually stoned, she thinks it’s hilarious to wear a horse head costume to the party and not explain this to anyone.
The majority of the premiere hour bounces around among these characters in a very unstructured and unfocused manner as mom Audrey stresses about hosting the perfect party, dad Greg cheats on her with a call girl (a regular thing for him) and mopes about in a funk, and all the kids gripe about their smothering mother and detached father. Still wearing the horse head, Kristen seduces Ashley’s model friend and has sex with him in a treehouse in the backyard while dad Greg gives a downer of a speech to all his friends and family about the utter meaninglessness of life.
Up through this point, the episode has been well-acted and had some sporadically amusing scenes or lines of dialogue (Ball is certainly not untalented), but on the whole is pretty dull and uninteresting. Then, moments before the end, it turns really weird.
While Greg is halfway through his speech, Ramon suddenly hears a very loud sound that nobody else notices. He also sees four columns of fire flare up from candles in the other room and float through the air toward him, resembling the numbers 11 11 that he’s been obsessed with. He has a major freak-out about this that causes quite a stir at the party.
Afterward, Audrey becomes instantly convinced that Ramon is schizophrenic and drags him to a psychiatrist, demanding that he be started on anti-psychotic drugs immediately. Greg thinks she’s overreacting and the kid just got too high and had a hallucination. Ramon himself believes something supernatural has happened to him. He may even be correct about that. In the psychiatrist’s office, he notices a photo of the woman from his dream, which the doctor says is his own mother.
Episode Verdict / Grade: C+/B-
I’m not sure what to make of this one yet. For a long time, the show appears to be HBO’s attempt to imitate the success of NBC’s ‘This Is Us’. Honestly, I found most of the episode boring and kind of pointless, and was on the verge of writing it off entirely. Then, at the last minute, it shifts gears dramatically and now seems to be more of a replacement for ‘The Leftovers’. Is it really a supernatural drama, or did Ramon just have a hallucination? I have no idea. I get the sense that this may have even been a change in direction late in development.
I think I’m interested enough to watch another episode and hopefully get a better sense of what this series is trying to be, but I’m not ready to commit to it long term yet. I’m also concerned that, even if I should decide to follow it, the show will struggle to find an audience and will get canceled without resolution. I fear that may be too risky a proposition to get attached to.