This is how you know Here And Now is an emotional family drama: there are two familial birthday parties within the first four episodes and, in between, family meetings and family dinners. If you drink whenever someone hugs a sibling, or a child, you'd never make it to the end credits.
Created by Alan Ball, who wrote the first two episodes and directed the pilot, Here And Now is HBO's prestige answer to This Is Us (or its better alternative Parenthood), though I'm not quite sure who asked for it. To somewhat distinguish itself, Here And Now also includes a strange supernatural twist that's present throughout (it wouldn't be Alan Ball without some wtf-ery). Big-hitters Holly Hunter and Tim Robbins play Audrey and Greg, who have aged into a world they assumed would be better now. She's a retired therapist turned "conflict resolution consultant" and he's a philosopher; both specialize in empathy, which is the buzzword of the whole series. Together, they've raised four children: Duc (Raymond Lee), from Vietnam, a "motivational architect" (see: life coach) with a meticulously-curated Instagram; Ashley (Jerrika Hinton), from Liberia, who works in fashion and tries to hide her side booze- and cocaine-fueled activities from her husband and young daughter; Ramon (Daniel Zovatto), from Colombia, a student and video game designer who is widely agreed to be the favorite child; and Kristen (Sosie Bacon), their only biological child, a 17-year-old high schooler who deals with her unconventional family by trying to make herself more unique. Like Kristen, Here And Now also struggles with trying to find its own identity, reacting to the TV landscape instead of working to find its own innate individuality.
Here And Now certainly is a heavy series, one that's set unsubtly in the Trump era and that aims to reflect the nonstop debates on culture and identities. Audrey wants to be the patron saint of progressivism, making the world better one adoption at a time. But she goes too far, as mothers tend to do: embarrassing Duc and Ashley on their younger school picture days by forcing their cultures on unwilling children who just wanted to fit in--or, at the very least, not get bullied by their peers. (This assimilation is an ongoing theme: Ashley even changed her name to something white when she turned 18, because no one could pronounce her old one.) Duc and Ashley love Ramon but lightly resent him for being white-passing (and therefore easier to assimilate and be accepted by the white people in their community) and the favorite (so much so that he's nicknamed "Baby Jesus"), explaining how he was the easier child since no one had to teach him English (Duc) or figure out how to handle his hair (Ashley). But Ramon doesn't have it too easy, either--Audrey romanticizes the fact that he's gay, relishing at the chance to remark on how "special" he and his partner Henry (Andy Bean) are. Though the children tend to also resent their mother at times, Greg gets off a little easier because he's more passive and seemingly just goes along with whatever Audrey wants. He's also becoming more withdrawn and depressed--or maybe it's more existential, or who knows--so the children tend to worry more than resent, but suffice it to say Greg has some unlikable secrets of his own.
So yes, Here And Now eagerly explores race--one scene comparing and contrasting the different ways a police officer treats a white character and a black character is frustratingly simplistic, but it's portrayed as if it's groundbreaking--but that's not it's only mission. The other big focus of the show is Ramon's therapist Farid Shokrani (Peter Macdissi) and his Muslim family who is dealing with, as he puts it, "religious anxiety" which is dealt with in a similarly clunky way as racial politics. Farid, haunted by past trauma, and his wife Minou (Necar Zadegan) disagree on how much they should engage with their faith, especially in our current world (Farid, for example, isn't too on board with Minou openly wearing her hijab). Here And Now also uses the Shokrani family to introduce gender issues, as their son Navid (Marwan Salama) is gender fluid--though only within the confines of the Shokrani house. Yet the addition of all these intersections of social issues feels more like Ball throwing everything in the kitchen sink rather than a show built to resonate with marginalized groups it portrays.
Here And Now's biggest problem is that it doesn't, at least not within the first four episodes sent out to critics, reign in its focus. Instead, it casts a wide net over a variety of subjects, dipping its toes in everything from hate crimes, to abortion rights, to white supremacy. At one point, Greg gives an impassioned speech to his students about empathy--it's an almost Aaron Sorkin-esque rant--that instructs them to go outside and maybe even punch a Nazi. Even if you take away the hot-button issues, it's still a crowded scene: unfaithful spouses, ruminations on psychiatry and medication, weed, psychics, virginity, blackmail. (And yet, even so packed, Here And Now still manages to feel utterly dull at times!) Much of it feels too surface-level (would you believe that at one point a character literally finds themselves at a fork in the road?), and you want Ball and co. to look further, dig deeper, really pull out whatever the hell it's trying to say.
Still, to watch an Alan Ball series is to trust him, and there is a lot of intrigue and some promise to be found within Here And Now--though, without ruining the twists, I suppose you'll have to trust me, too. One of the better qualities is Ramon, who is easily the most charismatic and compelling member of the whole family. If the show has any semi-engaging hook--and you have to look pretty deep to find one--it would be Ramon's vaguely mythological crisis (part of which includes seeing the same set of numbers everywhere) that, unfortunately, I can't spoil here. What's also intriguing is Farid's strange, strong connection to Ramon, which the show explores more as it goes on. But whether or not that works depends on if you want your family dramas more grounded or not; I suspect this will throw a few people off. Another highlight is his budding relationship with Henry, Ramon's new boyfriend who is equally open and mysterious, that provides some of the better moments in the show. Zovatto is a stand-out of the ensemble cast (yes, one that includes both Hunter and Robbins, who try but sometimes get slogged down by the dullish subplots and clunky speeches) and there's an ease to his acting that helps move everything along though it's certainly not enough.
There is room for more family dramas on television and especially ones that are injecting a little more originality into the genre. Here And Now doesn't rely on faux, manipulative sentimentality the way that This Is Us does which certainly works to its credit but it also lacks the immediate hook that NBC drama had to pull in (and maintain) so many viewers. If Here And Now can narrow its intentions and lean further into the mysterious intrigue surrounding Ramon, it might find a way to right itself.