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HBO’s Here and Now is a mess — but an interesting mess

The new family drama wants to be Six Feet Under for 2018 America. It settles for being a center-less flail.

Here and Now
Tim Robbins and Holly Hunter star in Here and Now.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

HBO’s new family drama Here and Now — from Alan Ball, who created the original HBO family drama, Six Feet Under — is kind of a dud, at least through the four episodes (out of 10 total in the first season) that I’ve seen. But the reason it’s a dud is increasingly typical of this sort of prestige drama, and that’s worth digging into.

The simple fact of the matter is that after four episodes of Here and Now, I don’t know what the show is trying to do. Other critics have talked about how unlikable the characters are, or how confused the series feels when it comes to balancing its many elements and tones (which I’ll get to below). But I could forgive any of these problems if the show seemed to have some sort of purpose. And it just doesn’t.

I think Ball and his collaborators are trying to look at the idea of American multiculturalism and its place in 2018 America, through the lens of one family, the Bayer-Boatwrights. Greg and Annie (Tim Robbins and Holly Hunter, lending star power) adopted three of their four children from Liberia, Vietnam, and Colombia (all countries that the US has “fucked up,” in the words of one character), then had one biological daughter (their youngest).

So maybe the show’s central question is, once you bring all of these people into the same space, the same family even, will their similarities (as human beings) or differences (as people treated very differently in America — especially Donald Trump’s America) prove more acute? You could maybe make that work as a TV show, but it would require incredibly deft writing and a light touch. Six Feet Under, at its best, had such deftness.

But Here and Now does not. And now I’m finally going to tell you why.

Six Feet Under was a tightly structured show. Here and Now is not.

Here and Now
Sosie Bacon and Jerrika Hinton play two of the Bayer-Boatwright children on Here and Now.

In theory, I should have been thrilled by the launch of Here and Now. After all, I wrote back in 2016 (shortly before HBO picked up the series) that the network needed not another Game of Thrones but another Six Feet Under, a drama that would engage with life as it’s lived in the United States at this moment in history.

And in its best moments — like when Kristen (Sosie Bacon), the biological (and thus white) daughter of Annie and Greg, and Ashley (Jerrika Hinton), their daughter adopted from Liberia, are both detained by the cops and treated very differently — Here and Now achieves that level of engagement, by wedding earnest political discussion to the complicated family dynamics inherent in any family. That is to say that Kristen and Ashley are white and black, respectively, but they’re also sisters. And sisters are always going to simultaneously want to kill each other and drop everything to defend each other.

This sort of makes Here and Now sound like a “hot button issue of the week” show, like one of those legal dramas where the lawyers walk into court to argue about whatever the series’ writers were reading about in the Times that week. But Here and Now has its eyes on much bigger game. It sort of wants to be about everything, to the point that Greg is a professor of philosophy and spends a lot of time waxing on about the value of thinking about thinking. There are racial conflicts that Annie, who heads up a group focused on increasing empathy, is brought in to resolve, a gender-fluid Muslim teen in Kristen’s high school class (whose family also turns out to be important to the series), and seemingly supernatural visions of ... something that’s coming. It’s a lot.

What’s more, the show does a lot of what I didn’t like about Six Feet Under, especially in Six Feet Under’s later seasons, wherein it focuses on dreaming up horrible things that can happen to the characters instead of creating actual interpersonal conflict and drama. Though our responses to misery can be interesting in a dramatic sense, that’s true only sparingly. When it becomes the only tool in the kit, the show rapidly runs out of juice (as the very similar family drama This Is Us is finding out right now).

But Six Feet Under survived its visits to Misery Town, and that was because it had a rigid, clean structure; no matter the depths of darkness it would plunge its characters into, it could always come back right away the next week with the promise of something new. In particular, the way that every episode centered on a “corpse of the week” — a new person who had died and highlighted the thematic issues that the funeral-home-owning Fisher clan were confronting — could feel clunky and like a bad literary device, but it also always gave the show some new territory to explore in every episode.

Here and Now lacks that organizing principle, which left me thinking that maybe the “hot button issue of the week” structure could have been an improvement, when, really, it doesn’t belong anywhere near a family drama and would probably just reduce the show’s multiracial cast to a collection of talking points. But the irony is that the characters already are sort of collections of talking points, as the show finds itself too caught between just being itself and attempting to provide the definitive document of Liberal Life Under Donald Trump.

Like so many prestige dramas right now, then, Here and Now lacks a strong reason for any of its individual episodes to exist. The show is just a chronicle of stuff that happens to this family, with a vague promise that something important will happen somewhere along the line. I never hated watching it, but I never felt particularly compelled to watch any more.

Six Feet Under could feel like it had a strong center but was in search of supporting ideas to go with it, and I remember complaining about that fact while the show was on the air. But now that Here and Now exists as a bunch of compelling supporting ideas with no center, it turns out I’ll take that earlier show any day.

Here and Now airs Sundays on HBO at 9 pm Eastern.