The episode plays like a sort of Alan Ball greatest-hits medley. Ball scripted the Oscar-winning suburban lament “American Beauty,” then created the classic family drama “Six Feet Under” and the less-classic vampire soap “True Blood” for HBO. His shows all have political overtones (in “True Blood,” vampires “come out” to humans), and he loves using families as a prism through which to view American life. At his best, Ball creates characters that feel as lovably imperfect as your own parent or sibling; other times, it can feel as if he’s screaming liberal talking points through the screen.
It’s intriguing, then, that the family he chose to put at the center of “Here and Now,” his return to HBO after a brief four-year absence, is the living embodiment of white liberal guilt. Greg made his name as a philosopher, decades ago, with a book called “A Layperson’s Guide to the Here and Now.” His sycophantic teaching assistant gushes to him about “the way you marry Epicureanism with presentism, then reboot them both into something deeply, deeply moral.” We’ll surely learn more about Greg’s views as the season goes on, but for now, it sounds as if his ideas were about finding pleasure through focusing on the present, without allowing oneself to become a selfish jerk. That was before life in the 21st century plunged him into a moral crisis. Now, he’s mourning his idealistic youth, visiting a prostitute once a week and sobbing on the way home.
Greg’s wife, Audrey Bayer-Boatwright (the great Holly Hunter), is his opposite — energetic while he’s chronically lethargic, controlling while he’s out of control, obsessively involved in her children’s lives while he barely acknowledges their existence. Twenty years ago, Audrey gave up her therapy practice to found something called the Empathy Project. She wants her son’s new lover, Henry, to be her best friend, because that’s just how cool she is with having a gay son. And although she’s the kind of upper-middle-class white person who can’t throw a house party without bringing in caterers, she does speak to them in fluent Spanish.
In his speech, to his kids’ understandable annoyance, Greg refers to their family as “this great experiment.” Three of the four Bayer-Boatwright children were adopted from countries wronged by the United States. Ramon was born in Colombia. His elder siblings, Ashley (Jerrika Hinton), from Liberia, and Duc (Raymond Lee), from Vietnam, envy him. They call him “Baby Jesus” because, as Duc explains over drinks with Ashley and the male model she brought along from work, their parents “just calmed down” after they adopted Ramon. He didn’t have to wear the national costumes Audrey forced on the older kids, maybe because he looked “WASP white.”
Their parents’ well-meaning attention to Ashley’s and Duc’s origins have apparently made them both fixated on and resistant to their racial and ethnic identities. They tease each other with slurs like “angry black woman” and “ching chong Viet Cong.” Ashley changed her name, at 18, from one of African origin to what she calls “the whitest name I can think of.” She’s married to a kind, dull white man, the father of her young daughter, and she has a job that’s very different from her parents’ do-gooder professions: She works in the fashion industry. Duc, for his part, is so hungry for his dad’s approval that he’s become a “motivational architect,” feeding clients a simplified version of Greg’s philosophy with slogans like, “See it, want it, have it.” Also, he’s celibate.
Ramon’s messianic nickname, and his soothing effect on his parents, may well turn out to have some connection to this 11:11 story line. But for now, what’s clear is that there are two factions among the kids: Ashley with Duc, and Ramon with his 17-year-old sister, Kristen (Sosie Bacon), who idolizes Ramon. As their parents’ sole biological child, she has a complex about being “the boring white chick in the family.” So she escapes from herself, smoking weed, making fake Facebook accounts and wandering around Greg’s party with a rubber horse mask on her head. When she loses her virginity with Ashley’s model, he doesn’t seem to mind that she stays in disguise the entire time.
All of this — the characters, their secrets and hangups, the supernatural stuff — adds up to a fairly overstuffed premiere. And that’s before Ramon visits the office of Dr. Farid Shokrani (Peter Macdissi), a psychiatrist who has a photo of the same scene (minus the torn-open face) Ramon saw in his dream. The woman, Dr. Shokrani says, is his mother. That’s where the episode ends, although HBO has said that “Here and Now” will follow the doctor’s family, too, so we’ll surely learn more about them soon.
In the meantime, I’m ambivalent. Ball wrote and directed the premiere, which accounts for the strong dialogue. I find Ramon and Audrey fascinating, and Kristen reminds me of Lauren Ambrose’s Claire Fisher, the wonderfully angsty teen daughter from “Six Feet Under.” I loved the conversation in which she reminds her mom, “I am my own person who is not you.” Audrey and Duc haven’t entirely come into focus yet, and Greg is a bit of a sulky, baby boomer dad cliché. (In “American Beauty” terms, he’s a Lester Burnham for Trump’s America.)
Most of all, I’m worried the 11:11 stuff and the Bayer-Boatwright saga will never meld into one coherent story. The first episode of “Here and Now” held my attention, though, and that’s all a pilot needs to do.