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HBO's Here and Now has a spark only now and then


Life’s bubbles are bursting in Here and Now. HBO photo

Premiering; Sunday, Feb. 11th at 8 p.m. (central) on HBO
Starring: Holly Hunter, Tim Robbins, Jerrika Hinton, Raymond Lee, Sosie Bacon, Daniel Zovatto, Joe Williamson, Andy Bean, Peter Macdissi, Marwan Salama
Produced by: Alan Ball, Peter Macdissi, David Knoller

@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Every once in a while, a character in a TV series unintendedly speaks volumes, disparagingly or otherwise, about the TV series he or she is in.

In the case of Here and Now, it’s Ashley Bishop-Black (Jerrika Hinton), one of three adoptees in this new HBO drama.

“You have potential. But you are slow. And you waste time,” she says in dressing down an employee of her online fashion website. It’s only Episode 1, but this reviewer already had been getting that sinking feeling. Wearying, preachy, structurally unsound and impenetrably mystical also come to mind.

The creator and principal executive producer is Alan Ball, who has been very good for HBO (and HBO very good to him) with the previous series Six Feet Under and True Blood. Ball’s 1999 feature film American Beauty also won the Best Picture Oscar and a Best Actor trophy for the now disgraced Kevin Spacey. So attention must be paid, as they say.

Two accomplished thespians, also with Oscars in hand, are at the initially stormy center of Here and Now, which is set in Portland, OR. Tim Robbins (Mystic River) plays revered philosophy professor Greg Bishop, who 30 years ago wrote a mega-bestseller. He’s now in a deep brood about turning 60 without having divined the true meaning of life -- or whether it has any at all.

Holly Hunter (The Piano) is his very hands-on wife, Audrey, a “conflict resolution consultant” with The Empathy Institute.

The Bishops, showcasing their open-mindedness and fealty to those less fortunate, have adopted and raised three children from other countries. The aforementioned Ashley is from Somalia. Duc Bishop (Raymond Lee), now a very single-minded and prosperous life coach, is a native of Vietnam while troubled but talented video game designer Ramon (Daniel Zovatto) was rescued from a Colombia orphanage.

There’s also biological daughter Kristen (Sosie Bacon), youngest of the brood and filled with ‘tude as a student at the multi-ethnic and thereby increasingly polarized high school where mom consults. Kristen is quite reminiscent of Claire Fisher (Lauren Ambrose), the very troubled teen from Six Feet Under.

Before very grudgingly attending a 60th birthday party meticulously arranged by his wife, Greg avails himself of his weekly tuneup from a call girl who’s young enough to be his daughter. Meanwhile, Ashley and Duc get loaded, Kristen wears a horse’s head and Ramon continues to have some very scary visions in which he always sees the numbers 11:11. He has another such episode at the party after Dad gives a dark speech on how just about everything is a load of crap. Are we having fun yet?

Ramon, who also has a new gay lover named Henry (Andy Bean), reluctantly joins his parents at the office of therapist Farid Shokrani (Peter Macdissi, who in real life is Ball’s partner and a co-executive producer of Here and Now). It’s later learned that Farid also has some serious demons in play. He’s otherwise the understanding father of Navid (Marwan Salama), a “gender fluid” teen and classmate of Kristen’s.

The other main supporting character is Malcolm Smith (Joe Williamson), an assistant women’s soccer team trainer who’s married to Ashley. They’re the parents of a cute little girl. But Ashley’s unfulfilled despite Malcolm’s all-around great guy comportment.

HBO made the first four episodes available for review. Production began in earnest after Donald Trump became President. So Here and Now is the latest TV drama to ruminate, mostly via Greg, about what America may have suddenly become.

“Anxiety is a completely appropriate response to today’s anger,” he says at a seminar, disavowing the optimism he championed in his long-ago book. “Thirty years ago, truth was truth.”

Well, not entirely. Not ever, really.

But as Here and Now digs in deeper, Greg seems to undergo a rather abrupt and puzzling change in temperament. Not to give away too many details, but what’s up with that? Many viewers might have given up by then anyway. I mean, who has time for this? Audrey also veers to and fro from being gratingly overbearing to the soul of tact.

There’s also a beyond heavy-handed scene in Episode 2. Ashley and Kristen have just exited a Planned Parenthood clinic when a holdover, baboonish protestor confronts them. Bearded, plus-sized and ridiculously prototypical, he brandishes a makeshift cross with a naked plastic baby affixed to it while bellowing at Kristen and finally calling her a “dumb whore.” She responds by kicking him below the belt before matters escalate. It later turns out that the protestor is a registered sex offender. The entire sequence has all the subtlety of a carnival barker.

There are moments in Here and Now that threaten to turn the corner and reward a viewer’s patience. But just as quickly, things bog down again. The acting isn’t at fault, but the preachments and overall ponderousness are. Instead of “don’t worry, be happy,” it’s much more a case of “don’t hurry, be unhappy.” Or vexed if you prefer. With all the TV and streaming choices out there, life’s just too short for that.


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