“That means something, right?”
Creator Alan Ball’s Here And Now tries to meld the incisive family drama and existential expanse of Six Feet Under with the giddy excesses of True Blood. Instead, the series premiere embodies the worst extremes of both, giving it all the elements of a fun hate-watch, without the fun. Everything about “Eleven Eleven” is as on the nose as its opening theme (Portugal. The Man’s “Live In The Moment”). Even the setting is over-explained. An early shot featuring three iconic bridges spanning the Willamette is enough to establish the where of Here And Now as Portland, Oregon, but “Eleven Eleven” firmly sets the scene by cutting to the city’s Old Town sign. Twice.
The who of Here And Now is the Bayer-Boatwright family, whose very names are too symbolic. When someone presumes to call her “Mrs. Boatwright,” Audrey Bayer (Holly Hunter) corrects him. “Like the aspirin,” she says, underlining the possibility that Audrey, a self-described “handful,” might be more of a headache. Introduced fumbling with her phone and trading generationally defined barbs with her youngest daughter, Audrey is a caricature. She wears the politics and attire of an affluent Berkeley earth mother over the steely resolve of a rigidly controlling perfectionist, as if the two leads of Grace And Frankie were combined into one tightly wound package.
H. Gregory Boatwright (Tim Robbins) made his name preaching the philosophy of living in the—you guessed it—here and now. Irony alert: Gregory is now incapable of living in the here and now, in part because the when of Here And Now is Trump-era United States. Gregory’s only flicker of pleasure comes when his fawning TA arrives with a newly acquired first edition of Gregory’s book, A Layperson’s Guide To The Here And Now. The youthful author’s photo is a sobering contrast to the sad sack he’s become, and even his acolyte can’t forget the “idiots” who dismissed Boatwright’s doctrine as “an ethical defense of hedonism.”
Throughout the premiere, Tim Robbins’ range is reduced to a series of cartoonish frowns. When a scene abruptly cuts to Gregory in the arms of the attentive young sex worker he visits weekly, we see his O-face is one of deep dismay. But so is his playing-Bejeweled face, his taking-a-shower face, and his giving-a-speech face.
The rest of the Bayer-Boatwright family is as broadly drawn. Now-adult children Duc (Raymond Lee), Ashley (Jerrika Hinton), and Ramon (Daniel Zovatto) were—as Ashley and Duc conveniently explain to an outsider—adopted from Vietnam, Liberia, and Colombia. “All places America totally fucked,” Duc helpfully adds, in case the subtext is too subtle. (It isn’t.) The youngest child, biological daughter Kristen (Sosie Bacon), lives at home in a Greg-Brady-groovy attic bedroom.
Duc, a “motivational architect,” draws on his father’s philosophy with seeming success, but he can’t attain his own desire: gaining his father’s approval and attention. Duc’s directness seems refreshing at first, until it becomes clear that everyone in Here And Now speaks in text instead of subtext.
Originally named Sabido, Ashley “had it changed to the whitest name I could think of” on her 18th birthday, as much to annoy her parents as to fit in with her peers. Those are also her twin motivations for marrying her cheerfully neglected white, blond, formerly-Republican husband Malcolm (Joe Williamson). “He looks like a golden retriever turned into a dude,” Ashley’s coltish, doltish male model Randy (Trent Garrett) remarks, in what constitutes an astute observation from Randy.
Kristen—seventeen, constantly high, and just as constantly self-effacing—also suffers from Gregory and Audrey’s preoccupation with their adopted children’s presumed exoticism. In one breath, she claims she’s comfortable being “the boring white chick in the family” and reveals she’s having DNA analysis, hoping for “a tiny percentage of something interesting.” Desperate to obscure her own face and identity, she spends her free time catfishing strangers and wanders around her father’s birthday party wearing a horse head.
But it’s Ramon who’s at the center of “Eleven Eleven.” After opening the series with his dream of a strange woman calling to him from an unknown beach, Ramon is dogged by signs, starting with a literal neon sign at his regular coffee house. Later, the timer on his elliptic machine gets stuck at 11:11. Then the dry cleaning he picks up for his parents rings up to… yup, $11.11.
“Eleven eleven?” Ramon asks cute barista Henry (Andy Bean), who gets promoted to boyfriend over the course of one afternoon. “That means something, right?” It feels like it should, Andy agrees. By the climax, where Ramon—and only Ramon—sees candle flames floating aloft, reading “11 11,” this touch of the otherworldly is the only thing animating the episode, because it’s almost the only thing not explained to exhaustion.
“You are unusually forthcoming tonight,” Ramon tells Kristen, but the core problem with Here And Now is that everyone is unusually forthcoming. Everything has to be said aloud, often two or three times. From Ramon and Henry’s long-simmering attraction (“Where were we?” “Oh, we were flirting. Like we’ve been doing every day since I started working here”) to Ashley’s trifling with Randy, there’s no room for the audience to infer or interpret, or for the characters to retain any ambiguity.
The performances, ranging from perfectly fine to excellent, almost save the dialogue from itself. The bar is set high by Holly Hunter, who—when not hobbled by the writing—can lend this leaden show a moment of genuine transcendence. Wordlessly, almost silently, she shows Audrey dressing before the mirror, brimming over with tears, then suppressing them under a forced but impish smile. It’s the first glimpse of real depth in the character, and in the show.
The dialogue is thumpingly obvious, but there are moments of clever counterpoint here and there. Gregory’s birthday rant, which shows how mired he is in hopes of the past and expectations of the future, is cannily foreshadowed by Duc’s exhortations to his client. “It’s too late! For any of it!” he reminds her. In contrast to his father, Duc isn’t advocating despair. He’s urging her to action. “Right now is all that exists!” they agree, energized to make the most of the moment they have now. Here and now.
The subtlest, best motivated characters in “Eleven Eleven” are afterthoughts. Lydia (Cynthia Ettinger), Duc’s tearful client, has more yearning in her expression than all Tim Robbins’ frowns put together, and her backstory—the years wasted regretting old choices—is succinct and relateable. Famiko (Jessica Lu), who knows Gregory as “Simon,” can’t know that he and his wife fetishized their adopted children’s origins with kente cloth outfits and an áo dài for picture day. But she still knows him well enough to guess he might relish her parting near-bow and “arigato” as much as he does the energetic sex preceding it.
Like Audrey summing up her planned speech about a lifetime together as “blah blah blah,” Here And Now reaches for deep meaning and fumbles it. Trying to evoke a poignant contrast between desperation and of rapture, it evokes neither. Cutting from H. Gregory Boatwright mourning the world to his youngest daughter’s sexual initiation while she wears a rubber mask could create a thrilling frisson, a brazen mismatch of tones that intensifies both. But because each scene is so vacant, the two together add up to “blah blah blah.”
Despite its excesses, its broad characterizations, its shrill insistence on playing for shock moments that it telegraphs from minutes away, I want to like this show. In theory, these characters could be intriguing, even endearing. (Admittedly, Gwen Ihnat’s four-episode overview doesn’t offer much hope.) Though the dialogue dwells on exposition, the actors manage to make these relationships feel lived-in. But “Eleven Eleven” is too weighted down with vacant philosophical musing and self-pity to have either depth or the buoyancy that could sustain it. By turns dour and dumb, Here And Now isn’t transcendent, it isn’t deep. It’s mopey, dopey, and deeply disappointing.
- Ashley insists it’s their mother, not their father, who made their children “advertisements for how progressive and evolved” they are. But it’s Gregory who speechifies about “this great experiment” that is their family.
- “‘Individuals who are continually contacted by the number 11:11 usually have some positive mission to accomplish, a mission that remains a mystery until genetically programmed sequences are activated within the DNA,’” Ramon reads from an unidentified source.
- Of course the first song on Audrey’s party playlist is Joni Mitchell’s “Carey.” Of course it is.