Last summer, I binge-watched Alan Ball’s HBO drama Six Feet Under. When it first premiered, in 2001, Ball was best known as the Oscar-winning screenwriter of American Beauty, and TV was mostly known for mediocrity. But that game had already begun to change with The Sopranos, which premiered two years earlier. It would be a while before TV—inch by inch, Mad Men by Breaking Bad—would move up several brows to eventually become the new movies, and Six Feet Under was a crucial part of that trajectory.
The show’s subject—a family of undertakers, including two handsome sons, a frustrated mother who never got to find herself, the father’s ghost (who made regular appearances), and a beautiful, talented artist daughter who was a withering judge of them all, including herself—could have been the stuff of sitcom, or soap opera, or, as it proved to be, a little of both. Each episode of Six Feet Under opened with a new death. Every day someone was taken, and every day a new customer was born. Whereas the characters in American Beauty—a film beautifully shot and expertly acted, including by (ahem) Kevin Spacey—never transcended their allegorical broad strokes, when you pricked the characters on Six Feet Under, they bled. Indeed, Ball killed all of his major characters by the final episode. (The last scene, to the strains of Sia’s “Breathe Me,” is especially moving.) When I rewatched the show, I could see my current life on that screen: things I couldn’t have imagined when the show first aired. And that’s when we know a show truly has legs—when it speaks to us through our changes. After Six Feet Under, it took Ball a long time to recover, as if he were in mourning.
Would the Allan Ball who got under my skin ever be back? (True Blood, his second show for HBO, which ran from 2008 to 2014, didn’t evoke any strong feelings.) Finally, my curiosity seemed to have been sated with Here and Now, which premiered on HBO in February and continues this Sunday—a well-acted saga of a disintegrating family with enough religious, ethnic, and gender diversity to be a little too on the nose, and a touch of the supernatural.
When we first meet Greg Boatwright (silver-haired Tim Robbins), a philosophy professor at Portland State, he broods, has desperate sex with a prostitute, and, in a fit of nihilistic fervor, swerves from a class on Schopenhauer to encourage his students to “Get out. Live,” “Go burn something down,” and “But stop fucking thinking.” (He mostly spouts Ted Talk–style orations without specific references to actual philosophy.) As Audrey Bayer, Greg’s wife, a conflict-resolution specialist for the local high school, Holly Hunter admirably and perhaps unnecessarily hides her trademark Southern accent, but not the charm that goes with it.
Just in the first three episodes, we see Kristen (Sosie Bacon), the family’s white biological child, expresses envy for her friend who is Muslim and gender fluid—she intends to have her DNA tested, in case “maybe there’s a tiny percentage of something interesting in there.” Her older adopted sister, Ashley (Jerrika Hinton), Liberian-born, who works in fashion, does some blow with a model (with whom Kristen loses her virginity while she wears a horse-head mask). Later, she accompanies Kristen to jail after she kicks a Planned Parenthood protester in the groin after he says, to Ashley, “I guess black lives don’t matter.” Their brothers are Ramon (Daniel Zovatto), a gay college student majoring in video-game production, and Duc (Raymond Lee), a super-slick motivational speaker who claims to be celibate, even though we witness him having sex with strangers.
Check every box: an international family, Islamophobia, homosexuality, gender fluidity, race relations. What ties it all together is the story of the Bayer-Boatwright family as they struggle with relationships, child rearing, teenage sexual mishaps, and the contortions between religious practice and the rejection of it. Greg used to be an idealist, someone who wrote a best-selling book that provided its readers with a version of “Follow your bliss” self-help. But Donald Trump has now ruined it for him—even though Greg stopped producing years before 2016—so now it must be ruined for the rest of us.
Some of this recalls the Portland of Portlandia, but with a straight face. How much are we supposed to take seriously? Here and Now is made for people who have progressive politics—no one will be converted here. Is the show a critique of our contemporary culture or a symptom of it?
If Here and Now has a chance to match Ball’s best work, it isn’t in the all-too-familiar world of realism but in another one. Throughout the show, Ramon is haunted day and night by images of women who look like his biological mother, all giving him a cryptic sign. He sees numerological patterns everywhere, and has visions that vaguely allude to the violence that surrounded him as a young child in Colombia, before he was scooped up into bourgeois utopia. Mysteriously, Ramon’s visions of “11/11,” which appear as wounds on a cheek, on a clock reading 11:11, and so on, also haunt the psychiatrist treating him and his adoptive father. Is this sympathetic magic or TV writing that’s trying too hard?
Neither the characters nor viewers yet know what the numbers mean, but those images, that magical thinking, that borderline psychosis: It drags us away from the here and now into something else. And a fantasy story, even a dark one like this, Ball seems to suggest, could be welcome within the context of a show that, depressingly, reflects back the confusions of our own lives. Still, Ramon desperately doesn’t want to be schizophrenic, and his family is behind him on this.
For the rest of us, our own here and now is already too much with us.