HBO’s big-budget forays into television have reinvigorated the medium in the past decade, creating series with influence extending so far beyond the screen that they become nothing short of cultural phenomena.
“Game of Thrones” amassed the largest fan base in television history. “Westworld” brought the works of Michael Crichton to life in one of the best-received dramas in recent memory. The irreverent comedic style of “Silicon Valley” flourished on the network and introduced audiences to some of the most recognizable quotes in the current pop culture landscape.
These series, lauded by critics and audiences alike, pervaded the public consciousness in such a profound way that it is safe to assume that most people under the age of 40 have watched at least one of the three.
And then there is HBO’s newest series, “Here and Now.” To be perfectly clear, “Here and Now” is not one of these shows. “Here and Now” can never be one of these shows. “Here and Now” will last a single season — if HBO’s creative judgement can be trusted — before it slinks away into permanent obscurity.
The hour-long pilot opens with a bizarre dream: a woman begins grotesquely clawing through her face, a clever foreshadowing for the viewer’s reaction to witnessing this bloated monstrosity of a pilot. The recently roused Ramon (Daniel Zovatto, “Don’t Breathe”) is then tentatively established as the show’s protagonist. After rising from his bed, he visits the laundromat and, more importantly, his love interest Henry (Andy Bean, “Allegiant”).
A phone call introduces Ramon’s neurotic mother (Holly Hunter, “The Big Sick”) and 17-year-old weed-obsessed sister (Sosie Bacon, “13”), giving slightly more context to the life of the underdeveloped Ramon.
Before the audience has been given any real reason to care about Ramon’s plotline, the focus shifts to his mother and sister. The plot of the episode slowly becomes apparent: the mother, Annie, is planning a birthday party for the family’s patriarch. The two engage in a few minutes of back-and-forth and, just before the audience has enough information on the characters to become invested, the plot shifts again and again and again.
Without providing any sort of overarching conflict or significant plot thread, the show arbitrarily builds a family of characters that somehow manage to be both over- and under-developed. The show bites off more than it can chew and never takes the time to introduce a meaningful conflict with which to wash it all down.
On paper, the show should be excellent. It never strays from HBO’s signature high production quality — the acting is phenomenal and, perhaps most tragically, the themes it attempts to explore are refreshing and mostly absent from current mainstream television.
The show’s premise is certainly interesting: a far-left couple adopts three children from foreign countries and has one of their own, setting up an ensemble cast diverse in both appearance and characterization. It manages to take a critical look at hyper-progressivism while still deftly normalizing homosexuality and creating a harrowingly accurate depiction of both mental illness and the toll of infidelity.
In a sense, these discussions are exactly what television needs right now, which makes it all the more tragic that “Here and Now” simply could not pull it off. Addressing all of these themes in one season would be a challenge, but attempting to cram it into a single pilot is all but impossible.
The phantom of what “Here and Now” could be haunts every clever line and genuine emotional moment in the episode, leading to one of the most disappointing pilots in recent memory. Without any real conflict or motivation for the characters, they are unable to become engaging or even likable despite the quality of the acting.
It would certainly not be the most difficult to forgive “Here and Now” for its missteps. The lofty premise is a target that not even the most proficient storytellers would be able to hit. But HBO and creator Alan Ball took their shot nonetheless, and the result is a bloated, confusing mess that struggles to find a real identity of its own.