“It must be cool,” a white friend says to a Black woman and an Asian man. “Having siblings from like, these exotic places.”
He’s referring to the fact that they’re siblings, adopted by the same parents. The Black woman, Ashley (Jerrika Hinton) is a Liberian-born fashion designer. The Asian man, Duc (Raymond Lee) is a Vietnamese “motivational architect” (intellectual jargon for a life coach). There’s a brilliant moment of tension, where Ashley and Duc both look at each other silently in disbelief, wondering how this white man can so blatantly fetishize their experience. In their minds, they’re not “exotic” to each other, they’re just family. But this moment of silent affirmation in the face of ignorance is immediately undercut by a heavy-handed argument mere seconds later, when both Ashley and Duc sling offensive racial epithets against each other in a joking way. The dialogue aims to sound casually lived-in and incredibly racially insightful. But there’s a problem. It’s not just that adopted kids of different races don’t speak this way. Nobody speaks this way.
This is the struggle of “Here and Now,” a highly anticipated family drama from HBO showrunner Alan Ball (“Six Feet Under,”“True Blood”). Ultimately, it’s hard to buy into this world when it’s so thoroughly unbelievable. The show is an ambitious attempt to capture the current political climate through the lens of a mixed-race family, weaving together characters of different races through familial, and sometimes supernatural, bonds. Aubrey Bayer (an excellent Holly Hunter) and Greg Boatwright (Tim Robbins)—both white—have adopted three children of nations harmed by U.S. intervention. In addition to Ashley and Duc, there is Ramon (Daniel Zovatto), a Columbian orphan who has grown into a confident, gay video game designer. They’ve also had a child of their own, Kristen (Sosie Bacon), an irreverent teenager. The Bayer-Boatwright family isn’t the only family explored, either. Additionally, “Here and Now” chronicles a family also living in Portland, led by psychiatrist Farid Shakrani (Peter Macdissi), an Iranian immigrant married to a religious Palestinian, with a non-binary child.
The show doesn’t try to escape its somewhat ridiculous premise, but embraces it, which sometimes feels like showrunner Ball had a checklist to fill out for genders, sexual orientations, and racial identities. It’s not that striving for diverse representation onscreen is a bad thing, but when it’s trapped by a storyline so contrived and self-aware, familial connections can never surpass the original “gimmick.”
The characters’ jobs seem like something straight out of a “Portlandia” sketch. Aubrey is a warm mother who is passionately trying to keep her family intact and while helping the world through a non-profit called The Empathy Project. The white patriarch, Greg, is a burnt-out philosophy professor who has built a lifetime of striving for optimistic faith, but has an existential crisis causing him to question absolutely everything. The jobs in the show (psychiatrist, philosopher, video-game artist) give some semblance of an excuse for the truly hokey dialogue and cultural references. The second episode alone throws out passing references to anglicized names, Carl Jung, slut-shaming, “porous mind” theory, belief in reverse racism, the influence of phone technology, and hijab politics. It sounds like the ramblings of someone looking at the struggles of modern America, but only reading the headlines and not the actual stories. By the time characters stare at the stars wondering their place in the universe, or make momentous decisions at forks in the road, “Here and Now” has already nearly lost its credibility.
The show’s messy dive into a racially-accepting American family clearly comes at a time of great anxiety for people of color in America. The show’s most intriguing concept comes from the philosopher-patriarch that questions the show’s very premise: what if putting together this diverse group of people wasn’t enough? Greg, taking a nihilistic view of the world, wonders if creating an adopted family, a great “experiment,” is worth it.
“Did any of it make any difference?” he asks, a sense of anxious regret in his eyes.
The same question could be asked of the show itself. Both the family and the show are made within a white, liberal bubble and artificially infused with people of color. Is this really progress or just the semblance of it? While the show passes off as an exploration of the lives of people of color, its true interests lie in white progressivism in the face of Trump. What happens when the thing so many people have dedicated their lives to seemingly fails to enact change?
It’s an intriguing question, but one that the show consistently trips up on. A heated argument occurs in Kristen’s school when white students, feeling excluded by affinity groups, organize to create their own queer pride club. Aubrey, leading the charge with the Empathy Project, works to try to recognize “both sides,” but finds it nearly impossible when students of color call their white counterparts “Nazis” and a white student responds with a hateful message. Why then, is this narrative being led by two white women who don’t have high stakes in the conflict? Addressing this issue is important, but simply pointing out that it’s a problem isn’t enough to make it a significant emotional investment.
The show’s wide scope also leads to some forced storytelling. Are you also wondering how all of these characters can happen to know one another aside from coincidence? They seem to be connected by something “Greater.” Ramon ends the first episode having seen the number 1111 over and over again before a fiery vision of the number appears to him. His mother thinks that he may have her brother’s schizophrenia, inherited across bloodlines. But the show suggests that he’s touching upon the supernaturally divine, something universal that connects all of humanity into choppily-edited childhood flashbacks. We’re left wondering if this is deeply profound, or just kind of ridiculous. The show hasn’t made any intriguing case for its profundity yet—instead, it keeps us with the brooding sense that something’s coming.
“Here and Now” would’ve been smarter if it had slowly developed its mystical side into an already-believable world. It’s hard not to think of “Transparent,” a similar show about a Jewish family in L.A. that also becomes a deep dive about identity formation. “Transparent” wisely grounds its characters by showing them going through their normal lives, longing to explore their identities but in a circular, mistake-driven fashion. By the time some magic-realist elements arrived, they were extensions of character development, not the defining features of identity. Supernatural forces entering the narrative can work, though; another HBO series, “Angels in America,” foreshadowed the arrival of an Angel figure for half its runtime. But by introducing wild phenomena right out of the gate, “Here and Now” loses the impact of thoughtfully created worlds.
It’s hard not to want to forgive “Here and Now” for its blunders, as its message of both racial diversity and questioning liberalism seem so necessary and in the present moment. But in attempting to be an immensely important piece of media, the show loses its relevance. No amount of fascinating ideologies or gorgeous cinematography can hide characters who are more political mouthpieces than real people.
Nathan Pugh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org