Well, this sure as heck isn’t us.
HBO’s dysfunctional family drama “Here and Now” (premiering Sunday) is a dreadful misfire from “Six Feet Under” and “True Blood” creator Alan Ball, about a family with more first-world problems than it can possibly count. In four episodes made available for review, the show rummages through a mixed bag of inscrutable themes, one of which appears to be an indictment of the performative cultural correctness that sets people off nowadays.
Like a straight-faced sketch that fell off “Portlandia’s” truck and is now damaged beyond repair, the far too self-important “Here and Now” centers on middle-aged Portlanders Audrey Bayer and Greg Boatwright (Holly Hunter and Tim Robbins) and their four children. Audrey is a lawyer who devoted her career to a nonprofit “empathy initiative” that focuses on conflict resolution. Greg is a past-his-prime philosophy professor who has started to bitterly recant some of his core teachings on life’s meaning.
As young parents, Audrey and Greg adopted three children from global trouble spots — a daughter, Ashley, from Liberia; a son, Duc, from Vietnam; and another son, Ramon, from Colombia. The three siblings, now adults, regard their parents’ magnanimous notion of a multiracial family with resentment, as if they were chosen to be prop pieces in Audrey and Greg’s overt display of virtue. Whatever truth there is in that, it also seems like an especially cold way to get to know a family.
Ashley (Jerrika Hinton) now runs an online fashion retail site and is married to a white man, Malcolm (Joe Williamson); Duc (Raymond Lee) has become a power-of-positivity life coach, claiming to draw energy from celibacy (which he doesn’t actually practice); Ramon (Daniel Zovatto) is in college learning to design video games and has just started dating a free-spirited barista named Henry (Andy Bean). Then there’s the youngest Bayer-Boatwright sibling, Kristen (Sosie Bacon). She is Audrey and Greg’s only biological child — a precociously intelligent high school junior who, because it’s cable TV, is perpetually up to no good.
As Audrey inflicts a dressy, catered 60th birthday party upon Greg (who only hours earlier was cavorting with a prostitute), a viewer realizes that the Bayer-Boatwrights are yet another thoroughly unlikable representation of progressive, upper-middle-class life, recalling the lingering weaknesses of Ball’s breakout screenplay for 1999’s “American Beauty,” with its relentless reminders of suburban moral rot.
Where do we start to try to enjoy a show like this — by viewing it mostly as a vicarious wallow? I spent all the energy I had on this kind of thing convincing viewers to accept the complex and distastefully conceited Pfefferman children on “Transparent.” The Bayer-Boatwrights are Pfefferman-plus-plus.
Prestige television often buys into this fractured, impenetrably morose idea of what a family is; Philip Larkin’s famous, withering line about parents is at once true and overused. It’s practically a motto for people who make TV dramas.
Greg’s unhappy party toast about mortality (given while Kristen is losing her virginity out back in the treehouse) is interrupted when Ramon suffers what appears to be a psychotic episode, linked to the mysterious apparition of the numbers “11/11.” (The last thing “Here and Now” needs is a “Leftovers”-like enigma to decrypt, but — sigh — here it comes, full of phony portent.)
Audrey and Greg take their son to a psychiatrist, Dr. Farid Shokrani (Peter Macdissi), and this is where “Here and Now” improves, as we follow the doctor home and meet his wife, Minou (Necar Zadegan), and their gender-fluid teenage son, Navid (Marwan Salama). Though they’re no happier than the Bayer-Boatwrights, the Shokrani household is simply more interesting: Farid, bearing literal scars from a childhood marred by the Iranian revolution of the 1970s, has all but rejected his Muslim faith, while Minou wants to deepen hers and Navid wears a hijab at home (with smoky-eye makeup).
In another layering-on of relevance, Audrey’s skills as a conflict-resolver are called upon at the public high school attended by both Kristen and Navid, where racist incidents have inflamed the student body.
Have we, by now, checked off all the boxes? I think we have. But checking them off is all the show does, with no indication that further episodes will get better or worse. It just kind of sits there, surrounded in snide dialogue and hollow gestures of concern.
Here and Now (one hour) premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO.