In the US: Sundays, HBO
In the UK: Tuesdays, 9pm, Sky Atlantic. Starts tonight
Is patience a virtue? It’s supposed to be, isn’t it? When it comes to TV, patience certainly can be a necessity, at least, as both the now-retired Carusometer and its successor, the Barrometer, can attest. Indeed, these days, plenty of shows start badly and it’s not before you get to anywhere between episodes three and seven that they get their acts together and reveal their true merits.
Patience is now particularly expected of us when it comes to ‘prestige TV’, which is often almost defined as being slower moving than regular TV. Remember The Leftovers? Great by the second or third season, apparently, but the first season was depressingly dreadful.
Maybe you are virtuous enough to be so patient as to stick with any given show until it gets good. But in the age of Peak TV, you need something more than patience – you need time. There’s so much good television, particularly serial shows, and prestige shows, you have to have oodles of hours spare in your day to actually watch them.
Here and Now
So how patient should we be with HBO’s latest prestige project, Here and Now? Already, you can sense its worthiness, with a name that’s as portentous as This is Us‘s – it might as well have called itself Very Important Drama About Modern Life. It’s also from Alan Ball, who wrote American Beauty and created Six Feet Under and True Blood. Very prestigious indeed.
Then there’s the cast and the plot. It stars Tim Robbins and Holly Hunter (wow!) as two former 60s radicals now all grown-up and living in Portland, Oregon – a place with so many liberal niceties and ticks, it can be satirised on multiple levels for multiple seasons with Portlandia. But it gets even more liberal than that: Robbins is a philosophy professor, Hunter a former therapist who nows heads something called ‘the Empathy Initiative’ focusing on conflict resolution by teaching empathy.
Even if that weren’t enough, they’ve adopted kids of different races from all around the world, all of whom are now adults. There’s Jerrika Hinton (Liberia), who’s the creator and owner of a retail fashion website; Raymond Lee (Vietnam), who’s now a successful life coach; and
Daniel Zovatto (Colombia), a student studying video game design.
At this point, even if you’re quite literally a card-carrying liberal like me, your patience will probably be extremely tested. You might not even have the patience to start watching the show. I wouldn’t blame you.
Even if you can muster that patience, the first episode is extremely… prestige. You get to watch Robbins screwing around with young prostitutes because he can’t cope with being 60, having a loving family and seeing Donald Trump as president. Hinton’s a dick to her staff for having the temerity to put a hat on a male model who’s being photographed. Hunter gets to patronise her Spanish-speaking staff with extended r-rolls and constantly rail against Western values and medicine. Lee’s offering motivational advice about not crying, while not actually having any relationships, while Zovatto’s having sex with blokes he meets in bars. Hunter and Robbins’ birth daughter (Sosie Bacon) is having arguments with teenage alt-righters in school about the patriarchy. Everyone’s wondering what pills they should be taking to cope with their undiagnosed ADHD or whatever.
And for about 45 minutes, it’s the most tedious, naval-gazing, First World Problems nonsense you could ever hope not to have to watch, interspersed with trips to the dry cleaners. You’ll want to throw a brick through the TV then drive down to Hooters with your shotgun in the back of your pick-up truck.
What, you might think, is the point of all of this? When exactly is the shoe going to drop and the series reveal why a lot of money and talented people have been spending their time on it?
It’s about that point that things start to get a little bit more interesting. Not hugely, but at least the show suddenly has something approaching a point.
Because this is when Zovatto starts to hallucinate flames that spell ‘1111’. To be fair, the show had been dotting hints earlier in the episode, but suddenly there’s a reason for us to care what time it is during Zovatto’s first scene. Things evolve a little more after that, with Zovatto going to a therapist (Peter Macdissi), only for it to turn out that (spoiler alert) (spoiler alert) he dreamed about Macdissi’s mother the night before and she spoke to him in Farsi, saying “It’s coming”. 11/11 is also Macdissi’s birthday.
Finally, some excitement… you might think. Is Zovatto the Second Coming? The John the Baptist for a Second Coming? Or just schizophrenic?
But before you know it, it’s back to business as normal. Hinton’s taking Bacon to Planned Parenthood to deal with an STD then having fights with anti-abortionists and getting mistreated by the police for being black. Lee is trying to get his book published, but the publishers are only interested if Robbins writes the foreword. Hunter’s trying to bring racist and anti-racists together to talk things over and empathise. Robbins is shouting at his students to “just get out there and live”, because philosophy and empathy are pointless, while asking Latino car cleaners not to call him ‘jefe’ because they’re all pals, aren’t they?
Even Macdissi doesn’t get off scott free. His LGBT+ son wants to wear make-up and a hijab (Macdissi’s wife: “I don’t think he’s trans. I think he’s more fluid. Gender neutral or is it gender queer?”), prompting a discussion about whether the hijab is oppressive when worn by someone born a boy and whether it’s anti-Muslim to suggest he doesn’t wear it.
It’s all glossy, Very Important Conversations about Important Issues that are almost offensive in their superficiality, their “plucked from the headlines” lack of nuance. It’s just that every so often, Zovatto and subsequently Robbins experience 1111-related incidents hinting at Powers Beyond Us. Is it all leading something deeper or is it merely a little tease to help keep us from slipping away into comas for a few more minutes?
How patient should we therefore be? Is dotting a homeopathic level of John from Cincinnati into every episode enough to make the world’s most achingly liberal, punchable TV show tolerable? Are we going to have to wait seven seasons before it gets really good and Portland is razed to the ground by heavenly fire or the entire family break bad?
Here and Now is at least well acted and intelligently written. There are fun exchanges, such as Lee and Hinton mocking each other with national stereotypes, while recalling how embarrassing it was to have parents who gave them African names and Asian national dress to wear at school.
At the moment, though – and for who knows who long? – it seems completely pointless. It’s got prestige explicit sex scenes (gay and straight). It’s got prestige monologues and prestige ‘transgressiveness’. It’s so liberal, it might even be allowed to enter Portlandia‘s feminist bookshop where they’ll give it some books for free.
But does it pick a side? Does it make an argument? Does it seek to illuminate? Possibly, but it’s hard to tell.
It might be trying to show that liberalism needs to have some fire in its belly if it’s to avoid being anything but superficial, or that class, gender, sexual orientation et al can be so divisive that they can never be overcome, even with the best intentions. In which case it’s at least doing a good job of showing, rather than telling. But it so often feels like it’s putting the exact counter argument that each episode feels like an epic “life’s complicated, what you gonna do?” shrug.
On a voyage without a map
The question is whether it’ll ever reveal that there’s an iceberg of depth beneath its tiny, shallow, tedious, two-episode tip. Do you have the patience to find out? And if you do and it turns out that there’s nothing there except frozen platitudes, will you have wasted your time when you could have been watching something equally prestige but a whole lot more interesting instead?
I’ll stick with it for another episode, at least, but I’ve got my Barrometer leading the way. You’ll probably need something similar to keep you on course, too.