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Here and Now review – Alan Ball's woke family drama is stiflingly self-important

‘The overwhelming problem of Here and Now is its earnest but clumsy attempts to make a comment on the state of America.’
‘The overwhelming problem of Here and Now is its earnest but clumsy attempts to make a comment on the state of America.’ Photograph: HBO

There’s an undoubted set of good intentions behind Six Feet Under creator Alan Ball’s glossy new family drama Here and Now. In promotional interviews, he’s spoken about his desire not to make “another show about another white family” and given his preferred network HBO’s tendency to avoid centering their event dramas around people of color, it’s a progressive outlook.

It’s not just an awareness of racial diversity that’s spurred him to tell this particular story. Within the first two episodes, there are also gay characters, Muslim characters and a trans Muslim character, helping to make the show at least appear like one of the most inclusive of the golden era. But one thing the show doesn’t boast is subtlety and in trying to speak to a time of post-election leftwing anger, its politics are as clumsy as they are overexplained. It’s akin to early episodes of The Newsroom, artlessly bludgeoning the viewer over the head with preachy liberalism despite the fact that they were probably onboard to begin with anyway.

Greg (Tim Robbins) and Audrey (Holly Hunter) didn’t want to do things the easy way. They wanted to create a multicultural family through adoption and years later, their “experiment”, as Greg rather cruelly calls it at one point, has led to an unusual set-up. Their eldest daughter Ashley (Jerrika Hinton) is from Liberia and is in a stale interracial marriage, their eldest son Duc (Raymond Lee) is a celibate “motivational architect” from Vietnam, their younger son Ramon (Daniel Zovatto) is a gay video game designer from Colombia and their youngest daughter Kristen (Sosie Bacon), their one biological offspring, is busy exploring her sexuality. But as Ramon starts to experience strange visions, cracks also appear in the lives of those around him.

The ensemble family drama, once a mainstay of both network and cable television, started feeling like a relic of the past with the advent of peak TV. An endless, ruthlessly competitive set of shows were too busy desperately innovating to focus on something this traditional. But the massive ratings success of This is Us has led to renewed interest in the format and 13 years after the finale of Six Feet Under, Alan Ball has returned with something that shares similar DNA: there’s a sex-positive attitude, a long list of familial idiosyncrasies, characters well-informed of their own psychology and a strong vein of mysticism. Yet while the former show felt fresh, strange and sharp when it premiered, there’s something ill-fitting and overly constructed about the elements he’s assembled this time.

It’s certainly not down to the actors. Increased screen time for Hunter, who pre-Big Sick had been drifting in a thankless procession of minor big screen roles, is never a bad thing and Robbins makes for an intriguing patriarch. The standout in the cast is Hinton, mostly known for Grey’s Anatomy, who has a charming, spiky star quality that compels us to want to know more about where her character is heading. Sadly, the meandering plotlines mean that we’re not quite as invested in those around her, despite considerable effort from the cast. The modernized family dynamic can’t hide the first episode cliches: a big party, an affair reveal, a profound and surprising last act speech.

Sosie Bacon and Jerrika Hinton in Here and Now.
Sosie Bacon and Jerrika Hinton in Here and Now. Photograph: HBO

The overwhelming problem, though, of Here and Now is its earnest but clumsy attempts to make a comment on the state of America as it currently is, repeatedly and awkwardly. There’s a strain felt through the dialogue (“Sometimes I think technology just makes us stupid” is an actual line), with Ball trying to force think-piece statements into everyday conversations. In the second episode, within minutes, we’re confronted by a pro-choice argument during a Planned Parenthood protest, a classroom debate about feminism and trans rights, a lecture about the country’s lack of empathy and the problem of relying on a selfish billionaire and finally a discussion of how to manage the emergence of a white supremacist group on a college campus. These are all important and timely topics but Ball hasn’t found a way to embed them within a fictional setting with any success or delicacy and as it stands, the show buckles under the weight of its own self-importance.

Here and Now desperately wants to be the show we need right now. But in the past year, breakout cultural phenomena such as Get Out and The Handmaid’s Tale have shown that social commentary within fiction often tends to work best allegorically. There is of course always room for more on-the-nose referencing but it needs to be used a bit more, ahem, liberally than it’s used here. It’s a one-sided argument argued again and again in scene after scene and even though I agreed with every point Ball was trying to make, I resented the heavy-handed lecture.

  • Here and Now starts on HBO on 11 February with a UK date to be confirmed.
This article titled "Here and Now review – Alan Ball's woke family drama is stiflingly self-important" was written by Benjamin Lee, for theguardian.com on Friday 9 February 2018 12.00pm

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