"Here and Now," which premieres Sunday on HBO, is a new ten-episode series from Alan Ball, whose previous shows for the network were "Six Feet Under" and "True Blood" and whose "American Beauty" screenplay won him an Oscar before that.
Once again, we are in a world of glamorous depression and soft-edged epiphany, encompassed now in the photogenic city of Portland, Ore. with its rivers and bridges and soft, gray, depressive and flattering light. (Pot is also legal there, and it is a device in more than one plotline.) People unacquainted with Portland might believe that real estate prices are such that these characters could afford to live in the places we see them live, but this is in line with the series' — and, let's face it, television's — inauthentic way with reality.
Holly Hunter, swallowing her Southern accent, plays Audrey Bayer, a former therapist now operating a one-woman something-or-other called the Empathy Initiative. "Not a lot escapes me," she says, though things do. Husband Greg Boatwright (Tim Robbins), whom she met on the Berkeley front lines back in the day, is a philosophy professor who in the distant past wrote a crossover million-seller, "The Layman's Guide to the Here and Now."
"Choose joy," was its hopeful message, but he is as far from that as Portland is from Miami. Turning 60 the very day the series begins, he has grown disconnected from his work and family and friends, relying for emotional support on his admiring TA and the prostitute he visits weekly. And Trump, unnamed but clearly described and very present, is president.
"I look at the world," Greg says, "and all I see is ignorance, hatred, terror and rage — we lost, folks, we lost."
Audrey and Greg have adult adopted children in three ethnic flavors: Liberian Ashley (Jerrika Hinton), an online fashion retailer; Vietnamese Duc (Raymond Lee), a "motivational architect" peddling a pop version of his father's old philosophy; and Colombian Ramon (Daniel Zovatto), a college student designing a kind of spiritual video game. They have a teenage biological daughter too, Kristen (Sosie Bacon), who is still in high school.
Practically speaking, the concept allows the show to be racially diverse while still concentrating the action within a single family. (An Iranian psychiatrist, Dr. Shokrani, played by Peter Macdissi, whose own family — including a gender-fluid teenage son who wears a hijab at home — is close to the main action as well.) Greg calls their family, ruefully, "a great experiment," while Duc describes it as an "advertisement" of "how evolved and progressive our parents were."
They explicitly debate (though they do not necessarily experience) issues involving race, sex and gender; they hash out nature versus technology, savagery versus civilization, religion versus reason. ("I'm a man of reason, not religion," the psychiatrist actually says.) When someone pipes up with something ordinary such as, "That's my brother-in-law, Malcolm" or "Please don't tell me we have a drone," it's a relief, a breeze entering through a just-opened window, a cool drink on a stifling day.
Like "Six Feet Under," it's a family drama with a mystical element, here involving the figure 1111, which Ramon suddenly can't help noticing: the time on a clock, the bill at a dry cleaners, the shape four candles make. Going online, he reads that people in tune with that number "usually have some positive mission to accomplish, a mission that remains a mystery until genetically programmed sequences are activated within the DNA." (Look it up yourself — it's a thing. Angels may be involved.) Dreams come into it.
I've watched nearly half of "Here and Now," and I have no idea where it's going or how ambiguous the paranormal elements will turn out to be. I expect it will all have something to do with sickness and healing and the need for connection and that some characters, at least, will be less sad by the season's end than they are at the beginning — though given the likelihood of future seasons, any resolution will surely just clear the way for new conflict. (And Ball does allow his people some pointed moments of happiness amid their illusions and disillusions.)
Ball's ideas are not hollow; they're human. (He's just a little shy of 60 himself; Greg's early late-life reflections may well reflect his own.) We all discover love and time and the weirdness of age for ourselves, feeling like the first to stand on those shores, despite all recorded evidence to the contrary.
But universality is a thin line that separates the obvious from the enlightening; things that everyone feels risk triteness when turned into art. That's why most of these characters, with just a little shift in the delivery of their lines, could be slotted into "Portlandia," a sketch comedy that tells you more than this drama about how people are — in no small part because it doesn't try to tell you How People Are.
And then there is Bacon, whose lovely, lightly inhabited, lively performance anchors the show in a more ordinary, yet highly individual reality. (Notwithstanding that she is several years older than her 17-year-old character.) That Kristen identifies herself as "the boring white chick in the family," is to her character's advantage, because she is also allowed to be normal and funny, a luxury not afforded her parents and siblings and practically everyone else here, who carry the weight of dark secrets, imperfectly suppressed desires and generalized adult anomie. She is not a vehicle, she doesn't stand for anything but herself.
'Here and Now'
When: 9 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd