“It looks like you’ve got something that could maybe become a cloud.”
Here And Now is a gorgeous-looking show. “It’s Coming,” directed by Uta Briesewitz, is even more striking than the premiere directed by creator Alan Ball. With less to set up, this second episode clips along faster, and it lands one solid emotional moment. Most of all, it looks great.
For an example of how beautifully the visuals—direction and lighting, yes, but also set design—can communicate the message of a scene, compare this promotional photo of Greg and Audrey, communing about their son’s possible breakdown, with the on-screen image. In the still photo, it’s two worried people. In action, it’s two worried people haunted by their son’s empty chair, sitting together but pulling apart, as similar and separate as the two paintings above them.
This visual grace makes it even more disappointing that “It’s Coming” isn’t great. Like the premiere, it’s flat, glib, and vacant. Instead of the promised “provocative, darkly comic meditation on the disparate forces polarizing contemporary America,” Here And Now rattles off lists of hot-button issues almost at random.
As Gwen Ihnat points out, Kristen and Ashley’s visit to Planned Parenthood is an echo of a similar segment from Six Feet Under. In “Twilight,” Claire is numb and disconnected, but that detachment is personal, even intimate. Here And Now’s version is a series of symbols delivered with thudding obviousness: a convenient class discussion of The Scarlet Letter, a protester jeering, “I guess black lives don’t matter?,” the same protester crumpling to the pavement, his crucifix center-screen.
The generic quality of this scene, and of the series so far, undermines the oft-repeated chorus of “It’s Coming,” in which its characters explicitly wrestle with the necessity—and the difficulty—of empathy for people’s “psychic pain.” Standing before a sparsely attended lecture, Greg thunders about the uselessness of empathizing with a powerful political enemy. (As his TA points out, this is a rejection of Greg’s life’s work.) In an emergency after-school meeting (at Kristen’s high school, which makes the world of Here And Now feel pathetically small), Audrey cuts through the outraged students’s clamor with a foghorn and, just as blaring, an appeal to empathy directly opposing her husband’s rant.
If you’d tuned in for nothing but the barbs these unnamed students sling at each other—“Uh, history?” “Slavery?” “Nazis?”—you wouldn’t miss any delicate socio-political discourse or character development. Empathy is not enough to make these shoddily constructed characters interesting or to make their telegraphed stories and platitudinous dialogue compelling.
As Dr. Shokrani, his wife Layla (Necar Zadegan), and their gender-fluid teenager Navid (Marwan Salama) come together for dinner, there’s a moment intended to drum up suspense. Navid strolls in wearing dramatic eyeshadow and a hijab draped insouciantly around his head and shoulders. (Navid’s parents call their child “he” and “him,” and until Here And Now indicates that Navid uses other pronouns, so will I.) Farid eyes Navid sharply, rises, and slowly walks over to place his hands on his child’s shoulders, then around his throat. The potential for violence dissolves as Farid tucks the hijab tighter, kisses Navid on the head, and says, “It’s supposed to cover all of your hair.”
In case viewers didn’t know, “It’s Coming” repeatedly points out that it’s dangerous to be Muslim in America. It is even more dangerous to be Muslim and anything but cisgender. (“I don’t think he’s trans,” Layla interjects before the two agree that, wherever on the gender spectrum Navid is, it’s a place of peril.) Peter Macdissi (series co-producer, as well as Alan Ball’s domestic partner), Zadegan, and Salama do their best with their dialogue, and their best is remarkably good considering half their lines read like statistical briefings, not conversation. But this first glimpse into the psychiatrist’s home life is just as bland as the rest of the show.
The episode boasts two scant glimpses of personality, even profundity, starting with Kristen and Ashley’s intake at the police station. For Kristen, it’s a goof, a great Instagram story. For Ashley, it’s a threat to be survived. Kristen pals around with the intake officers, demanding they send her her “celebu-tard” mug shot, giggling as she’s patted down. But Jerrika Hinton plays Ashley with taut precision, weighing every word and gesture until well-earned anger overwhelms her for just a second. The whole scene is stiff with her fear, and it works better than all the lavishly emotive talk that precedes and follows it.
When Greg’s optometrist warns him that he might, maybe, possibly, be developing the first signs of cataracts, it’s another opportunity for obvious metaphors. “You won’t see the same ever again,” the doctor tells Greg before reminding him, “But you’re not seeing the same way now that you were when you were a teenager. It happens. These are your eyes now.” Ramon, Greg pontificates, is seeing “without filters.” He yearns to do the same, to open himself to possibility.
Another, subtler symbol connects Ramon and his father. Opening himself to experiences, Ramon accompanies Henry to a secluded spot where, laughing and unafraid, they step under the pounding cascade of a waterfall. Given Here And Now’s remorseless self-analysis, it’s surprising no one spouts other names for a waterfall, including a cataract.
One modestly graceful symbol and one modestly successful scene do not mean Here And Now has turned a corner in its second episode. The unnamed optometrist’s warning—“It looks like you’ve got something that could maybe become a cloud”—sums up both the gloom and the hesitance of the show, from dialogue to plot to character.
This isn’t the “twilight” of Six Feet Under, a state of sedation—and of angst—in which “you’re not really gone, but you’re not really here.” This isn’t the evocative irony it could be, if written with more conviction and personality. This is the absence of any meaningful sense of self or even setting. No matter how many local landmarks and road signs and businesses feature on the screen (in one shot, Ashley and Duc are conspicuously holding Bunk Sandwiches takeout cups while a Voodoo Donuts box sits behind their table), it takes more to establish a sense of place. It takes much, much more to create characters worthy of empathy and attention. Despite its fine ensemble, this show is not delivering. Not only is Here And Now sadly empty of any sense of immediacy; in Here And Now, there’s no there there.
- H. Gregory Boatwright frowny-face slideshow!
- For the second episode in a row, Ramon describes being “followed by shadows” as a child.
- A small but pleasing conversational pivot: After Ashley tells Malcolm how Kristen met Randy, story sounding worse with every detail she adds, he asks, “Did anything happen… when you were in jail?”
- Too much of this episode’s momentum relies upon people blurting out secrets: Ashley telling Malcolm she brought Randy to the party, Kristen telling her mother about her sexual experience by accident, both of them broadcasting their adventure at the police station. Handy tip, kids! If you’re trying to keep your arrest from Mom, don’t burst into Mom’s house yelling “I went to jail, too!” and “I can’t believe you’re going to tell Mom!”
- Least plausible moment in the Here And Now: A car wash employee, finding a customer’s sex toy under the seat, nods thoughtfully as he examines it, then carefully stashes it in the glove box rather than hastily dropping it back under the seat and scrubbing his hand.
- Update: An earlier version of this review identified Necar Zadegan’s character by the endearment Minou, rather than her given name, Layla.