Much ink has been spilt, in the last year and change, equivocating about what art would look like in the Trump era. The best examples, like Jordan Peele’s genius sociological thriller Get Out, have merely existed under the specter of the presidency, wielding the power of story and genre to reveal something true about the moment; some of the worst, like Alec Baldwin’s increasingly redundant SNL impersonation, and Eminem’s belabored protest album, have vied to tackle Trump head-on. As the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jeffrey Eugenides told me last October, when discussing his new book of short stories, writing directly about Trump would bore him instantly. If you read the news, or check Twitter, or even just leave the house occasionally, it’s easy to see why.
Here and Now, which premiered on HBO last night, is perhaps the first dramatic scripted series to directly reckon with life in the Trump era. Created by Alan Ball, whose past projects have included Six Feet Under, True Blood and the seminal, Academy Award-winning movie American Beauty, the show has the mark of prestige. But make no mistake: this is pure, humorless melodrama, of the ABC Family-est order.
The series centers on the Bayer-Boatwright clan, the Portland-based children of a therapist Audrey Bayer (Holly Hunter) and a renowned philosopher H. Gregory Boatwright (Tim Robbins). Their highly successful progeny are mostly adopted—Duc (Raymond Lee) from Vietnam, Ashley (Jerrika Hilton) from Liberia and Ramon (Daniel Zavatto) from Colombia. Then there’s Kristen (Sosie Bacon), the 17-year-old biological daughter, who can’t help but resent the cultural vapidity of her whiteness (“I’ve made my peace being the boring white girl in the family,” she explains dolefully in the first episode; boo-fucking-hoo). Together, the group seems to tick off boxes on Ball’s reactively anti-stereotypical diversity checklist: Gay Latino? Check. Strong black career woman? Got her. Hyper-masculine, sexually desirable Asian dude? Yup. White girl suffering from white guilt? She's here, too. I'm all for greater representation of minorities on TV, but it's hard not to view these characters as created expressly for that purpose.
The pilot takes place on the day of Greg Boatwright’s 60th birthday party. Hunter, picking up where she left off as the overbearing mother with a big heart in The Big Sick, plays Audrey with a similar sense of anxiety and control-freakiness, as she goes about preparing everything just so. Duc and Ashley, by contrast, are doing coke in the backseat of a hot young male model’s car, who works with Ashley at her e-boutique. They arrive to the house a little after Ramon and Henry (Andy Bean), a charming guy from a local coffee shop who decides to invite himself to the party as Ramon’s date. Kristin, meanwhile, is upstairs, making a fake Facebook account and wearing a horse mask (apparently, it is more interesting to be a horse than a white girl). And Greg himself appears a little haggard, after having what we’re led to believe is a weekly appointment with a Japanese escort. His toast, which Audrey implores him to keep light, is instead a mopey jeremiad. “We lost, folks,” he says, before mourning the failure of the great experiment that is his family, and the fear, hatred and ignorance that abounds—not only in the country-at-large but in this very room, full of well-heeled Portland liberals.
It’s a weighty pronouncement to spring on the audience in the first episode, and the three episodes that follow feel like scrambling attempts to interrogate it. Boatwright’s philosophy, from what I can glean, seems to emphasize the use of empathy, and of living in the “here and now.” But how, Boatwright (and Ball) seem to ask, does one manage to live in the “here and now” when the “here and now” is unlivable, full of anger and hate, woefully unaligned with the ideals you’ve espoused your entire life?
This is not an uninteresting question, and one the show would be wise to adhere to. The most intriguing plot line thus far involves Ramon, who begins to hallucinate things, particularly relating to the numerical phrase “11:11.” His subconscious response to the current reality is to escape it completely. When he goes to see a Persian therapist, Farid, he recognizes his mother from a dream he’s had; in the video game he’s designing, Ramon appears to create characters with the same back scars as Farid, who abandoned his faith following a harrowing experience during the Iranian Revolution. Farid, for his part, ends up sharing a joint with a homeless Latina woman who calls him “mijo,” which is Spanish for son. That the two seem bound together by the universe feels like the ultimate expression of empathy—one that’s magical and abstract and cinematic enough to merit further exploration.
Unfortunately, Ball expends a good chunk of his energy litigating a range of progressive issues. Audrey mediates a discussion between a burgeoning white pride group at the local high school and its students of color, in what amounts to a series of dialectical talking points. (All the high school students on Here and Now talk like New York Times op-ed columnists.) When Ashley and Kristen get arrested—Kristen kicks a Planned Parenthood protester in the nuts—Ashley’s mistreatment by a white cop is plainly juxtaposed with Kristen’s satirically cheerful experience. Farid (Peter Macdissi) and his Muslim wife’s relationship mostly consists of arguments revolving around their faith, as if Muslim couples had nothing else to argue about. In his mad-dash to cover a myriad of hot-button issues, Ball ends up committing the one mistake it would appear he was most trying to avoid, reducing some of his diverse cast of characters to pawns in a liberal agenda. Here and Now would like you to conflate its progressivism with an act of "prestige" transgression. But there is something troublingly conservative and middlebrow about a piece of art that’s so transparently dogmatic.
Still, it’s hard to imagine that Ball, who's no stranger to melodrama, is not aware of this. When the male model suggests to Duc and Ashley that it must be cool to have grown up in such a diverse, international family, Duc says it would’ve been, “if we weren’t advertisements for how progressive our parents were.” Through four episodes, Duc’s statement feels like an accurate summation of the show; and Ball’s apparent discomfort, as the show's white male patriarch, seems to loom over Here and Now at every turn. It may be worth watching, then, if only to see whether the series morphs into a rebuttal of the stock progressivism it preaches—whether it evolves into a refutation of the very fact of its existence.