H. Gregory Boatwright (Tim Robbins), living in the here and now
Photo: Ali Paige Goldstein/HBO (HBO Media Relations)

“Maybe it’s just a continuing journey of successes and failures.”

“If A Deer Shits In The Woods” is almost fun to watch. The Bayer-Boatwright family is starting to throw off the weight of exposition and breathe a little. The episode stakes out its theme immediately, backing it up with action, (heavy-handed) dialogue, and even a subtle piece of set design.

That theme is summed up by Malcolm’s toast: “Fuck plans! In the face!” This episode’s all about maps and plans—about the freedom to be found in losing the path. Greg detours from his GPS-logged route to follow a sign, and then a buck, into the woods. Duc easily wins a mountain-bike race, but Malcolm gently demonstrates that he’s the real winner because “I’m happy and I’m making progress.” Challenged to outline his plan for the future, Henry scores points by shrugging, “Life’s kind of the plan, right?” This resonates with Ramon, who explains that his game-in-progress is about the journey, man.

Carmen (Fernanda Andrade), the outsider at the family dinner party (she might as well have a name tag labelled “Free Spirit” pinned to her flowy caftan) articulates a defense of spontaneity, explaining that Duc’s “motivational architecture” might work for him (it doesn’t), but it doesn’t work for everyone. This idea that boldly deviating from a life plan constitutes an act of intuitive wisdom pervades the episode. Unfortunately, like the rest of “If A Deer Shits In The Woods,” this central conceit falls apart under the slightest scrutiny.

The embrace of the spontaneous and the unplanned seems, on the surface, to be an embrace of Life with a capital L. But as the episode hammers home, having no map only works when you can rely on your compass, literal, emotional, or moral, and the people populating Here And Now can’t. Greg believes that in his hey-day, “the truth was still the truth, a fact was a fact,” unlike 21st-century society, which has been “turned upside-down by smart people like us”; when Carmen tells Duc that different people have different philosophies, he echoes his father by sniping, “The war on truth continues.” Prominently displayed in Ramon’s bathroom is a large wooden weathervane, a testament to the importance of direction—but also a directional tool ripped out of context and repurposed.

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There’s a certain idealism, even romance, in abandoning strategy and living in the moment. But in “If A Deer Shits In The Woods,” stepping off-course causes misery. Gregory follows a buck into the woods, is immediately stung by a wasp, gets disoriented, and spends the night huddled under a tree during an electrical storm. In a moment of crisis, Audrey gives the press a prepared sound byte, but it’s her off-the-cuff remarks—spoken after a reporter stops her in the act of walking away—that land her in hot water. It’s not clear if the gap between the characters’ (and the show’s) easily spouted philosophy and the consequences of following that ideology is intentional.

Audrey Bayer (Holly Hunter), about to steer off-course
Screenshot: Here And Now

Still, “If A Deer Shits In The Woods” (written by Mohamed el Masri and, like the gorgeous if vacant “It’s Coming,” directed by Uta Briesewitz) is fun to watch—more fun than the two previous airless, smug episodes, anyhow—partly thanks to the simple enjoyment in watching people connect. But under the surface, those connections feel empty. Ashley and Malcolm want to “have fun” together again, and their easy banter over dinner (and their passionate love scene) suggest they’re learning how. But after, Ashley stares into the darkness, maybe ruminating on the grubby piece of blackmail she’s keeping secret from her husband, maybe thinking of all the other gaps between them.

Audrey and Greg, temporarily stymied in their lovemaking by an absence of “magic pills” (it’s a hard sell that this aggressively sex-positive couple would say “Ho hum, no boner, we’re out of ideas”) spend the evening talking, giving massages, and laughing together. But like his daughter, Greg stays awake afterward, reflecting on the moments and years of disconnect that have fractured his marriage. (Surely that sex toy in his glove compartment will resurface soon to fracture it further.)

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Ramon extols the virtues of self-medication with the glowing brand loyalty of a buzz marketer. That makes it easy for Farid, immersed in traumatic memories of a childhood religious scourging (presumably an observation of Ashura), to recognize Ramon’s dispensary and seek out solace there. Make no mistake: Solace is exactly what marijuana delivers in this series, where it’s a balm far more effective than the vitamin E Farid’s son rubs into the terrible scars on his back.

Peter Macdissi, Marwan Salama
Screenshot: Here And Now

As he returns to the wedding he fled earlier, Farid’s blazed delight—in the celebration, the dancing, the mounds of pastries—and Macdissi’s easy, beaming performance of it are a joy to watch. But that pleasure, and the pleasure of seeing Farid and Layla embrace in the privacy of their bedroom, her breathing out, “You made me very happy tonight,” is mitigated by the realization that he never tells her how he managed to set aside his trauma to join his wife, her family, and her religious community. It’s another a moment of superficial connection that’s built on lies, or at least on willful omission.

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Randy (Trent Garrett) giving his best “O-face”
Screenshot: Here And Now

In the premiere, Randy’s presented as a harmless, if feckless, slab of dude, but now Here And Now has weighed in on his character with startling bluntness: “He’s a stool sample.” No less fleshed out than any of the Bayer-Boatwright family, and only slightly more ridiculous, Randy is suddenly is reduced to a punchline in a doughnut-printed romper, grabbing his junk with an “O-face” grimace before he’s blackmailed into muttering out on video, “I, Randy Butler, am guilty of statutory rape.” Dispelling any lingering ambiguity, Ashley and her assistant high-five in celebration of “catching our predator.” Where is the show’s much-vaunted empathy? Sure, Randy’s a grimy little creep, but on this show, who isn’t?

Here And Now really loses its path in its treatment of secondary characters. For all its trumpeting of empathy, the show uses bystanders the way Kristen uses her catfishing profiles: to prop up the interests and self-esteem of its core characters, ready to discard them with comic indifference. Audrey gets to look spunky telling the principal (Matt Malloy, underused so far), “You got it wrong. It’s not about me. It’s about those kids!” But when a blackface figure is lynched in effigy on campus, the story told is all about Audrey, not about “those kids,” who stand, unnamed and unheard, as she pontificates about forgiveness.

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Kristen (Sosie Bacon)
Screenshot: Here And Now

Like mother, like daughter: When a representative for the campus’ students of color tells their white classmates, “especially today, POCs need this space to ourselves so that we can safely articulate how we feel about the hate crime at our school,” it’s not treated as a clear and reasonable request, but an opportunity for Kristen to lecture them. Arriving late, she proves their point by taking center stage, informing them that racism is “everybody’s problem” and that they don’t understand “what diversity means.” Nothing about the scene suggests that it’s intended as irony.

The show’s just as superficial in other matters. In the second episode, Ramon’s exasperated that his psychiatrist anglicizes his name because “it’s just easier for some patients,” Farid tells Ramon. “Who, racist patients?” Ramon replies, earning an appreciative look. But Ramon, too, calls his psychiatrist “Fred,” because Here And Now is a checklist of hot-button outrages, not a thoughtful examination of how people perpetuate or reject them.

Defending Henry’s lack of plan, Carmen says, “Maybe it’s just a continuing journey of successes and failures.” That’s an accurate, even optimistic, description of life. But as a show, it leaves a lot to be desired. Here And Now is too gracefully acted, too handsomely filmed, to be described as “shit,” but in Greg’s sullen parable to his peers, the script sets up a tempting metaphor to replace Carmen’s: “If a deer shits in the woods, whether you’re there to see it or not, it means nothing. It’s. Just. Shit.”

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Stray observations

  • Uncredited eye-rolling philosopher/audience member is my new favorite Here And Now character. When she glances into the camera, she glances into my soul.
  • Adding to the waterfall symbols of “It’s Coming,” Gregory describes the current political climate as “just a raging waterfall of fuckery from here to forever.”
  • Like Holly Hunter in the premiere, Peter Macdissi tells a rich emotional story with just his eyes. Vulnerability, fear, sorrow, wry amusement, and the piercing gleam of pure love play across his face in flickers as his son massages oil into his back.
  • Least plausible moment in the Here And Now: H. Gregory Boatwright spends a night in the stormy woods and never complains about it. Runner-up: H. Gregory Boatwright is addressed as “Mr.” rather than “Dr.” and the conference leaves the H. off his name card, and he never complains about it. Most plausible: Ashley announcing, “I’m going to go change into something I can actually spill wine on.”

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