There’s more Portland in the first five minutes of Here and Now than most of the city’s residents see in a week: A young gentleman with an unfortunate man bun bikes across the Burnside Bridge and along a gentrified stretch of North Mississippi, then hops off to flirt with a tattooed beardo at Spin Laundry Lounge, where they stand in front of a rack holding the Portland Mercury.
HBO’s new drama from Six Feet Under and True Blood creator Alan Ball premieres on February 11, and it really wants you to know it’s set in Portland: Voodoo boxes clutter the background, conversation happens over Bunk take-out, Sizzle Pie stickers adorn school lockers, there’s frolicking at Latourell Falls and Forest Park.
All of it’s shiny and clean; Here and Now doesn’t take place in Portland so much as the Fantasy Portland first explored by Portlandia. This is a Portland where it never rains, and where there’s a Chinatown gate but no Right 2 Dream Too. When characters talk about needing money, they do so in a house that’s probably worth a couple million bucks.
Shows about rich people aren’t anything new, but Here and Now’s casual opulence feels particularly hollow in a city that’s caught up in clashes of class and culture. You wouldn’t know that from the show, which focuses on a single, diverse family: Greg (Tim Robbins) is a depressed, aging philosophy professor and Audrey (Holly Hunter), his wife, is a busybody who runs a vague school program called “The Empathy Initiative.”
In what Greg refers to as a “great experiment,” they have three adopted children—Ashley (Jerrika Hinton), a Black fashionista; Duc (Raymond Lee), an Asian “motivational architect”; and Ramon (Daniel Zovatto), a Hispanic indie video game developer. They also have a teenage biological daughter, Kristen (Sosie Bacon), who dryly calls herself “the boring white girl in the family.”
Few of these characters are interesting, but Ramon gets the most to do: While his parents wring their hands about the Trump era (“I look at the world... and all I see is ignorance, hatred, terror, and rage,” says former hippie Greg, in a real downer of a speech at his 60th birthday party. “We lost, folks. We lost”), Ramon is having dreams and hallucinations that center around four vertical lines: He sees “11:11” on digital displays; he sees four candles spout parallel lines of flame; he dreams of a woman using her fingernails to carve four bloody gouges into her face. For the most part, Here and Now is about dull, day-to-day struggles, but every once in a while, things grow surreal: Ramon’s visions intensify, characters face uncanny coincidences, Greg has a quasi-mystical encounter with a CGI deer.
In the four episodes HBO provided to critics, Here and Now is best with these moments of weirdness, and worst with plodding family drama and Philosophy 101 lectures. (Literal Philosophy 101 lectures. Thanks, Greg.) Its characters’ differing life experiences offer some dimension—a bigoted cop treats family members differently, and a white supremacist movement brews at Audrey’s school—but at least in these first hours, deeper topics are pushed aside for Greg’s brooding and Audrey’s fretting.
That seems an odd choice, given that Ball knows there’s more to dig into, especially here. “Portland has this reputation for being so incredibly progressive—and it is,” he told the New York Times last week. “However, it also has a pretty sketchy history in terms of racism. For a place that’s very progressive, it’s still predominately Caucasian. So there’s an interesting dichotomy there, because it’s a very progressive town and one of the greatest places to live. At the same time, it isn’t really what it aspires to be.”
Maybe Here and Now examines that later, but for now, its polished Portland is just window dressing. Here and Now doesn’t settle on any character, but it doesn’t settle on much. In trying to be about everything—sexuality, gender, race, parenthood, Sense8-style metaphysics, CGI deer—it ends up being about nothing.
Some parts of Here and Now seem to belong to a better show—Hunter, for example, turns a character who could be obnoxious into one who’s as sympathetic and lovable as she is maddening. But those parts are glued together with slow, generic stretches, so Here and Now is aimless and jumbled—the kind of show where intended jokes fall flat and dramatic twists are unintentionally funny. Say what you will about Portlandia, but at least that show was actually trying to be a comedy.