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HBO's Here and Now Is a Beautiful, Disjointed Mess

All the show's promise is buried under its contrived politics

Sadie Gennis

Here and Now, HBO's latest from Alan Ball, who has already given us one of the network's signature family dramas Six Feet Under, is about the complex dynamics within two families who are seemingly connected by a higher power. Maybe.

Having screened the first four episodes made available to the press, it's hard to say with any certainty what is actually going on, but accepting this unknown seems to be part of the point of the series. Like the characters who populate this world, the audience is left as much in the dark about the nature of the events that unfold, leaving us to undergo our own soul searching in tandem with theirs. But whether you define the seemingly undefinable events the series explores as supernatural, spiritual, mystical or fate, the only thing that is clear is that it all centers around the numbers 11:11.

The man bearing the brunt of this unexplained phenomenon is Ramon (Daniel Zovatto), a twentysomething stoner and video game creator who also happens to be the golden boy of his family. Adopted from Colombia by his philosopher father (Tim Robbins) and therapist-turned-empathy counselor mother (Holly Hunter), Ramon has no knowledge of his birth parents or life before he moved to Portland. Questions about his origins resurface when he begins to be haunted by the numbers 11:11, a series of events which at first seem innocuous (noticing the clock at that time) but soon grow terrifying and violent (hallucinations of flames flying at him, visions of women clawing their own faces).

​Daniel Zovatto, Here and Now
John P. Johnson/HBO

When Ramon googles what these sightings could mean, he learns that those who are repeatedly contacted by the numbers 11:11 are destined for a greater purpose -- something seemingly confirmed when Ramon realizes he shares a strange connection with the doctor his parents arrange him to meet with in the wake of his visions. But this knowledge of perhaps being guided from above does nothing to comfort Ramon, who begins living more and more in fear of his own mind, a fear fed by his mother's paranoia that Ramon is an undiagnosed schizophrenic, just like her brother.

But metaphysical, numerical web of mystery aside, the core of this show isn't in the question of what is happening to Ramon, but in how he and the other people in his life deal with all the issues they're facing -- or more often than not, don't deal with them. This is a show that thrives on exploring how internalized struggles -- be it disillusionment with society in Trump's America, childhood trauma or cultural insecurities -- manifest within individual's actions and rarely in a way that is beneficial to anyone involved.

Leading the family are Audrey (Hunter) and Greg Bayer-Boatwright (Robbins), two obnoxiously idealistic liberals whose lifestyles have always been more about fostering an image of acceptance and preaching closeness as opposed to actually developing deep relationships with themselves and those around them. After meeting at, where else, UC Berkeley, Audrey and Greg adopt three children to showcase how seriously they practice what they preach. In addition to Ramon, there's the Vietnamese-born Duc (Raymond Lee), a life coach whose need to always appear in control masks his secret vices, and the Liberian-born Ashley (Jerrika Hinton), a self-assured fashion entrepreneur who begins struggling with her identity as a black woman in America while juggling a growing feeling of unrest regarding her painfully mild marriage. And then there is Kristen (Sosie Bacon), the youngest and only biological child of the Bayer-Boatwrights who is more obsessed with how her whiteness makes her boring rather than the privileges it affords her.

​Tim Robbins and Holly Hunter, Here and Now
Ali Page Goldstein/HBO

The characters can occasionally feel like caricatures and the bleak politics of the series are handled with the heaviest of hands, but there is enough of a heart present to keep viewers from completely turning on the family over their (often excruciatingly) self-involved decisions. And luckily for everyone involved, there is also the show's exploration of Ramon's doctor Farid Shokrani's (Peter Macdissi) family to counterbalance the Bayer-Boatwright family's sometimes ingratiating behavior.

An immigrant who turned away from his Muslim faith after witnessing the horrors of the Iranian revolution first-hand, Farid's personal struggles with religion create obstacles in his relationships with his religious wife, Minou (Necar Zadegan), and child, Navid (Marwan Salama), a genderfluid teen who wears makeup and a hijab while in the safety of their home. Farid's childhood trauma remains an open wound, one that he seems to have no interest in healing. And while his wife and child respect his decisions, with his wife working overtime to try and bridge the gap between their beliefs, he rarely affords them the same grace or understanding.

​Necar Zagaden, Marwan Salama and Peter Macdissi, Here and Now
Ali Paige Goldstein/HBO

How Farid's own internal battle with his past is connected to Ramon's seems to be key to the series' overarching mystery, which is fortunate since they are the two characters who feel the most grounded. (Rounding out Ramon's journey is a sweet burgeoning romance with a barista who seems able to provide Ramon a sense of home he never quite got from his own family.) When Ramon and Farid stumble in their journeys, it's hard not to empathize with the emotions that lead them there. Their anger, their fear, their uncertainty with how to move forward -- all of it feels earned and warranted, which can't necessarily be said of Ramon's family's problems.

But while Here and Now's often soapy and superficial look at these lost liberals in a post-Trump world is beautifully shot and performed, it never quite gels with the supernatural through-line connecting these two families. The lack of nuance or even the slightest subtly within the show's self-important attempt to say something, anything about the state of American society only further highlights the gap between this disappointingly shallow exploration and the somewhat frustratingly obtuse paranormal mystery. Although interestingly enough, the disjointedness of these arcs isn't enough to completely turn you off right away. Instead, this confusion keeps you watching, wondering and waiting to see how these discordant parts will (hopefully) come together to create something whole.

This isn't to say that Here and Now is so wrong, it's right; it's more like that irrepressible compulsion to create order out of the messy puzzle Ball has laid out before viewers. But after four episodes, there is a more than warranted fear that the drama is missing some of the necessary pieces to provide any redeeming resolution to the chaos.

Here and Now premieres Sunday, Feb. 11 at 9/8c on HBO.