There’s an easy pitch for upcoming drama Here And Now, HBO’s latest collaboration with the man who gave us True Blood and Six Feet Under, Alan Ball. It goes a little something like, “This Is Us if it was made by Home Box Office, with a dash of magical realism.” Which, you know, true — that is Here And Now at its most basic. But, that kind of description strips away the detail that really makes the family drama sing: It’s missing the schlocky-sweet moments that have become Us’ signature and replaced them with drugs, visions, difficult people, difficult politics, and explicit, sometimes bonkers, sex.
If you’ve always wanted to join in This Is Us mania but couldn’t get past the emotional platitude-heavy dialogue and emotionally manipulative tendencies — the music cues alone! — Here And Now might be the show you’ve been waiting for.
The new HBO series, premiering Sunday, February 11, follows the Bayer-Boatwrights, a supposedly progressive family hailing from the liberal stronghold of Portland, Oregon. The clan is made up of self-obsessed academic parents Audrey (Holly Hunter) and Greg (Tim Robbins) and their four children, who span the racial rainbow. Three of the Bayer-Boatwright kids, who range between 20-something and 30-something, were adopted from around the world. How very Rebecca (Mandy Moore) and Jack Pearson (Milo Ventimiglia) times 100 of them.
But, Ashley (Jerrika Hinton) and Duc (Raymond Lee) “joke” their adoptions only served as living advertisements to their parents’ “evolved” image, as opposed to selfless gestures of love like the Pearsons.
The siblings have a point. While the pair was forced to live their respective Liberian and Vietnamese cultures first in America, leading to some tone-deaf childhood moments, their brother Ramon (Daniel Zovatto), who was born in Columbia, never did. Ramon also happens to pass for white. And then there’s fourth sibling, teenage Kristin (13 Reasons Why’s Sosie Bacon, of the Sedgwick-Bacons), who is white. Kristen is also Audrey and Greg’s only biological child.
While This Is Us works hard to make you like every single Pearson — yes, even Kevin (Justin Hartley) — that couldn’t be further from the intent on Here And Now. Audrey is overbearing and selfish. Greg is a sad sack 60-year-old white man and selfish. Ashley is reckless and selfish. Kristen is even more reckless and selfish. Duc is a bit of a liar and selfish. Ramon lives up to his nickname of “Baby Jesus,” as in the second coming, and is perfect in the way artistic boys with a higher calling and a habit of getting visions are perfect. Everyone is infuriating. Yes, it sounds like a lot, but that’s also how you would describe most real-life families.
That is why Greg serves as a bit of an anti-Jack Pearson. While Jack is willing to literally die to save his daughter’s dog from a blazing fire, it seems Greg can’t even be bothered to listen to his own daughter’s advice about suit jackets. As an old white guy in the middle of a midlife crisis, Greg often feels like the biggest drag on Here & Now with his empty problems.
But, the well-off professor’s problems, which often lead him to cry in the shower, are supposed to feel empty. There’s a reason he’s surrounded by a Black woman, a Planned Parenthood-visiting teen girl, a gay Latino, and a genderqueer Muslim teen, among others. Those are the people with actual problems in our current political climate. Not a wealthy old man who feels sad about being a wealthy old man.
While Greg can purposefully veer towards to irritating, Hinton and Marwan Salama’s portrayals of Ashley and Navid Shokrani give the show its major draws.
Ashley explores what it means to be a Black woman in a white, (allegedly) aggressively progressive world like the Pacific Northwest. In a place like Portland, can you actually escape the trappings of race with the cloak of respectability with the “right” name, the right upbringing, and the right community atmosphere? It will surprise no one who looks like Ashley the answer ends up being no. It’s a conversation we very rarely have, but need to continuously grapple with if things are ever going to change.
Navid pushes the story even further as a Muslim, gender non-conforming teen who is prone to listening to Islamic-friendly feminist rap and wearing a hijab and a full face of makeup… but only in the house, where the doors are locked and no one can see him. This choice isn’t spurned by the Shokrani parents’ resentment of their child’s gender expression, but rather his father Fahir’s fear of reactionary violence.
At one point the psychiatrist warningly tells his wife, “We live in America.” Portland’s progressive street cred doesn’t matter in the face of hate, or even the threat of it. The intersection of those two axes is where Here feels like its best self, especially in the midst of 2018’s increasingly polarized politics.
So, if you want a good cathartic cry and look at the best of what people could be, stick with a show like the legitimately lovable This Is Us. But if you want a bit of an edge in your family drama, it might be time for you to live in the Here And Now.
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