Fans of Six Feet Under’s beloved Fisher family were likely heartened by the news that Six Feet Under creator Alan Ball’s new supernaturally tinged series, Here And Now, also centered on a West Coast family. Unfortunately, those people are bound to be disappointed, as Here And Now dispenses with the humor and charm of the Fishers in favor of the insufferable superiority and pretension of the unlovable Bayer-Boatwrights. Even their name is hard to handle.
Between these two family shows, Ball took a detour into vampires (True Blood) and small-town crime (Banshee), so it’s difficult to tell just where he lost his deft hand at domestic drama. Everything is so overplayed and heavy-handed that it’s difficult, and far from enjoyable, to witness. Ball has long been fascinated with the veil that separates this life from what (if anything) may follow it. But now, what lies beyond this veil has strayed from whimsical to horrifying; a women scratching her own face open is the image that kicks off the series.
This time, the patriarch is still alive, but to what end, it remains to be seen: Tim Robbins’ Greg faces down his 60th birthday as a bitter, ruined philosophy professor who no longer believes in the benevolent mantras that defined his career. Instead, he tells everyone at his birthday party that “we lost” and spouts off to a conference that the world has turned upside down and we should all be reacting with anger, not optimism. The Trumpian reality is only obliquely addressed, but the prevailing defeatist attitude is depressing, to say nothing of dull.
Holly Hunter doesn’t fare much better as Robbins’ shrewish wife, Audrey, who runs an apparent one-person nonprofit called the Empathy Initiative. The pair adopted three now-grown children from Vietnam (Duc, played by Raymond Lee), Somalia (Ashley, played by Jerrika Hinton), and Colombia (Ramon played by Daniel Zovatto), before having one of their own (Kristen played by Sosie Bacon). Duc is celibate; Ashley, like her mother, has control issues; Kristen is basically Six Feet Under’s Claire with more obnoxiousness and 5 percent of the charm. Her idea of quirkiness is walking around a party in a horse-head mask; a few hours later, she loses her virginity in it.
The family’s main issues revolve around favorite son Ramon, who’s gay, good-looking, has a strange aversion to combing his hair, and experiences (at that same party with the horse mask) what’s either a psychotic hallucination or some sort of supernatural signal. These problems steer him into working with Muslim psychiatrist Dr. Farid Shokrani (Peter Macdissi, Ball’s domestic partner), who has a gender-fluid child (Marwan Salama) and an über-understanding wife (Girlfriend’s Guide To Divorce’s Necar Zadegan, deserving much better).
The family dynamic is set up as quickly as a chess board in the first few episodes, with Ashley and Duc complaining over drinks that their parents have always preferred Ramon, and calling out the cultural stereotypes that hang over each of them (“Are you good at sports?” “Are you good at math?”) That anvil-ish dialogue is unfortunately par for the Here And Now course. When Ashley takes Kristen to Planned Parenthood—in an odd throwback to a scene that was already perfected with Brenda and Claire in Six Feet Under’s “Twilight”—the two wind up in an altercation with a pro-life protestor and get arrested. Ashley’s jail experience is much more harrowing than her white sister’s (who’s painfully clueless about Ashley’s obvious trauma); yet there’s little follow-up beyond Ashley changing her hair. Farid enters a pot dispensary (its wares hailed as a wonder drug throughout the four episodes screened for critics) and gets the old “Where are you from? No, really, where are you from?” He later goes off on his own religion as an opiate for the masses during a boring, plodding dinner. Audrey’s Empathy Initiative is able to quash a white empowerment group at Kristen’s school in about five minutes, only to have an effigy of a black student hung the next day; the only fallout is that she loses her job, with much less emphasis on how this devastating display might affect the school’s students.
Ball was clearly devastated after the 2016 presidential election, and Robbins’ staggering, stumbling character seems a surrogate for the creator’s grief. At one point, Greg follows a stag into the woods, Narnia-like, and quickly gets lost; Ball is lost here as well. He’s ambitiously taken on an even bigger family (two, actually) inserted into today’s volatile political and social landscape with none of the narrow focus that made his previous series successful. Ramon continually seeing the numbers “11 11” and dreaming about his psychiatrist’s mother are potentially intriguing threads that get picked up and dropped at random, with some sort of muddled message about the altered reality of living with mental illness.
Meanwhile, all of the other plotlines are so discordant that they are near-impossible to weave into a cohesive whole: Ramon hooks up with immediately perfect boyfriend Henry, as the two of them cocoon claustrophobically into a long-term relationship in a matter of days. Duc’s extremely successful career as a “motivational architect” revolves around the motto “See it, want it, have it,” the same thought process as a demanding 2-year-old. It takes a special kind of hubris to waste actors as talented as Hunter or Hinton, who was one of the few recent bright spots in the bloated Grey’s Anatomy cast. Four episodes in, we haven’t made much process toward finding out whether Ramon is mentally ill or a harbinger of future times; what’s worse, nearly halfway through the first season, we’re still not invested enough to care. Our only motivation is to leave the Bayer-Boatwrights to their own devices as quickly as possible, in favor of a more palatable (and interesting) TV family to spend our Sunday nights with.
Reviews by Emily Stephens will run weekly.