I’ve occasionally wondered what an adults-only cable version of “This Is Us” might look like. There wouldn’t be quite so many healing moments, I’d expect, and the characters would be less relentlessly lovable. With all due respect to the carefully designed storytelling of that NBC hit, which operates like a three-level chessboard, the show is corny as hell.
Along comes “Here and Now,” the new HBO series from Alan Ball (“Six Feet Under,” “True Blood”) premiering Sunday at 9 p.m. It’s a family melodrama, like “This Is Us,” and it also features prominent themes about adoption, about race, and about the burdens and the bliss of having powerful, charismatic parents.
But, wow. There’s not a lot of healing afoot in “Here and Now,” at least not in the first four episodes made available for review. And the characters? Definitely not cuddly. They tend to be prickly and depressed, with complex pasts that undercut their well-being; they’d totally ditch a Pearson party to hang out, get high, and mope. Let’s just say their navels are not un-gazed-upon. The show is a cable-era adults-only “This Is Us,” in a way, but it’s anxiety-ridden enough to make you long for just a dash of kumbaya.
The Portland, Ore., family in question — the Bayer-Boatwrights — is helmed by Greg (Tim Robbins), a philosophy professor who wrote a bestseller about choosing life a few decades ago, and Audrey (Holly Hunter), the head of a peacemaking group called the Empathy Project who, as she and her family all know, is painfully and comically PC. They’re both going through midlife crises, of course, with the adulterous Greg pulling off the road to sob as he realizes he actually may not want to choose life. He’s hyper-aware of his and Audrey’s hypocrisies, and he’s also unhappy about Trumpism. “Here and Now” is very much set in the here and now, so we see Greg and the other characters, most of them progressives, consistently cringing at recent social and cultural changes, including an increase in Islamophobia and the existence of a white nationalist high school group.
Greg and Audrey have four kids, three of whom were adopted from other countries, all of whom have deep issues. They think of their family as an experiment and a microcosm — and that is, essentially, the story line of “Here and Now,” multiculturalism in an era of fierce polarization. The way we live now. There’s no specific, unifying narrative — on Ball’s “Six Feet Under,” funerals and death held it all together — so much as a weave of subplots involving racism, transphobia, gender identity, sexuality, and all-purpose domestic dysfunction. Ramon (Daniel Zovatto), adopted from Colombia, is a gay video-game developer; Ashley (Jerrika Hinton), from Liberia, runs a clothing website and might be bored with her husband and daughter; Duc (Raymond Lee), from Vietnam, is a life coach — he says “motivational architect” — who tells people he’s celibate; and high schooler Kristen (Sosie Bacon), the biological child, amuses herself by catfishing on Facebook.
There is probably a good show somewhere in all this liberal muddle about America, and it will be interesting to see if Ball can find it before viewers get tired of the rudderlessness. He created one of TV’s best family dramas with “Six Feet Under,” and there are glimmers of excellence here. Ramon is the most engaging presence, a handsome hipster who appears to be romantically well-adjusted, as he begins a sweet relationship with Henry (Andy Bean). His impatience with his mother’s excitement over the romance — his being gay is, for her, a point of political pride — is endearing.
He has been having nightmares and hallucinations, leading him to another good character, Dr. Farid Shokrani (Peter Macdissi), a Muslim psychiatrist with a young gender-fluid son. At times, I wished that the show zeroed in on Ramon and Farid, who appear to be the least self-centered, and kept the rest of the gang in the background.
The other siblings are, at least at the start, one-dimensional (Duc), inscrutible (Ashley), and irritating (Kristen). Audrey is hard to take in large doses, despite the appeal of Hunter, and Greg is little more than a tired stereotype, as his existential crisis turns into self-pity. I’m not going to give up on the show right away; Ball is too good to dismiss, and I’m hoping he can pull it together. There’s a lot here, and it needs to be sharpened now. Too bad TV shows don’t come with autofocus.
HERE AND NOW
Starring: Holly Hunter, Tim Robbins, Daniel Zovatto, Jerrika Hinton, Sosie Bacon, Raymond Lee, Andy Bean, Joe Williamson, Peter Macdissi
On: HBO, Sunday at 9 p.m.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.