Here and Now is a masterclass in American disenchantment

by Diana Wichtel / 25 February, 2018

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Watching an actual Nazi run for US Congress, maybe Here and Now is right.

You know the times are significantly out of joint when an actual Nazi is running unopposed in the Illinois Republican primary for the US Congress. Arthur Jones was interviewed by a flabbergasted Alisyn Camerota on CNN, if you can call a man yelling spittle-flecked claptrap about “the cursed two-party, Jew-party, queer-party system” an interview. Camerota suggested that Jones is a Nazi. He denied it. “You go to neo-nazi rallies … You were part of the White People’s Party. You dress in Nazi garb and you celebrate Hitler’s birthday,” she said. “You’re a Nazi.” Jones carried on like a Holocaust-denying loon until Camerota looked as if she was getting a migraine. “You couldn’t win dog catcher,” she seethed. “Chances are you’ll go down in flames.” She looked worried.

No wonder Greg Boatwright is depressed. In the first zeitgeist-ridden episode of Here and Now, Alan Ball’s new drama series, philosopher Greg (Tim Robbins) is flattered by a student about his seminal work, A Layperson’s Guide to the Here and Now, “the way you marry Epicureanism with presentism, then reboot them both into something deeply, deeply moral”, raves his acolyte. “As if morality matters,” snaps Greg. Has a once idealistic baby boomer ended up bitter, cynical and disappointed? Oh, yes.

Greg’s wife, Audrey Bayer (Holly Hunter), is a former therapist now running something called The Empathy Project and she is every bit as annoying as that sounds. They have a Jolie-Pitt-style adopted family: Ashley from Liberia, Duc from Vietnam, Ramon from Colombia and their biological daughter, Kristen, 17, self-described “boring white chick” in the family.

Ashley’s husband is nice Malcolm. “Wow. He’s a golden retriever turned into a dude,” notes Ramon’s new gay lover, Henry. Not everyone in the series is an anxious liberal. Malcolm was a Republican, explains Ramon. “You know, before Trump.” Duc has reduced his dad’s philosophy into what looks like a narcissistic personal-growth system. “Right now exists,” Duc badgers a grieving client. “See it. Want it. Have it.”

Greg transmits the disenchantment of half of America by being in no mood for a 60th birthday party. Especially one enlivened by Audrey embarrassingly doting on Henry, as well as Kristen losing her virginity (while wearing a huge horse-head mask) to a male model whom Ashley fancies. Suburban malaise as expected from the writer of American Beauty and Six Feet Under.

But wait. Six Feet Under had talking dead people. True Blood had vampires. In Here and Now, Ramon is beset by surreal dreams – a woman with a child on a beach speaking like a backward-talking escapee from Twin Peaks and clawing gouges in her cheek. He keeps seeing the number 11.11 everywhere. Google reveals to Ramon that such visions indicate he has a mission to accomplish. Yeah, right, thinks Ramon. Then the fiery hallucinations kick in. Audrey packs him off to a psychologist, who seems mysteriously connected to the visions. What does it all mean? No idea, but so far it’s easily intriguing enough to keep me tuning in, though I fear an Aaron Sorkin-style lecture. “All I see is ignorance, terror and rage!” lectures Greg. “We lost, folks, we lost!”

In his birthday speech, Greg says gloomily, “This great experiment that is our family … did any of it make any difference?” Cue an obvious metaphor for the great, open-armed diversity experiment of America. Did any of it make a difference?

After watching the footage of Arthur Jones on CNN, you have to wonder. “Any time you’ve got a Nazi running,” an academic told the Atlantic, “somebody was asleep at the switch.” Maybe Greg is right to be slumped in self-loathing on the floor of the shower, pouring Audrey’s expensive Danish shampoo down the drain in an America where people like him, in their pursuit of happiness, of here and now, have been asleep at the switch.

Video: HBO

Here and Now, SoHo, Sky 010, Monday, 3.00pm and 8.30pm.

This article was first published in the February 24, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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