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‘Here and Now’ review: HBO drama interesting, yet unfocused

Tim Robbins and Holly Hunter star in new

Tim Robbins and Holly Hunter star in new HBO drama "Here and Now." Photo Credit: HBO / Ali Paige Goldstein

THE SERIES “Here and Now”

WHEN|WHERE Premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO

WHAT IT’S ABOUT The Bayer-Boatwrights are a progressive multiracial family who live in Portland, Oregon, and who are struggling against the New World Order — a divisive president, nations in turmoil, heightened sectarianism — which may explain the thrum of anxiety that runs through each of them.

Greg (Tim Robbins) is an embittered hack and philosophy professor who once wrote a best-selling New Age-y book called “A Layperson’s Guide to Here and Now” and now cheats on his wife with a prostitute. His wife, Audrey (Holly Hunter), is a conflict-resolution specialist in some local schools where conflict — notably over race — is running high. Adopted daughter Ashley (Jerrika Hinton), who runs a fashion business, is also a mother and unhappily married to Malcolm (Joe Williamson). Oldest adopted son Duc (Raymond Lee) is a self-help guru, or “emotional architect,” also deeply conflicted over sex. And youngest biological daughter Kristen (Sosie Bacon) is a senior in high school. After adopted son Ramon (Daniel Zovatto, “Lady Bird”) has a vision of the numbers “11:11,” he’s taken to a Muslim psychiatrist, Dr. Farid “Fred” Shokrani (Peter Macdissi, “Six Feet Under”). As it turns out, both share a mystical link. This 10-episode series — four episodes offered for review — marks showrunner Alan Ball’s return to HBO.

MY SAY Instead of a TV series, “Here and Now” can sometimes feel like a listicle of fashionable “-isms” and New Age platitudes. Here’s a partial sampling: It’s about multiculturalism, globalism, nativism and progressivism, also identity politics, white privilege and Islamophobia. There’s a smattering of numerology, synchronicity, symbology and the unity of all humankind. Threaded throughout is a magical mystery tour of harmonic convergence and the spiritual significance of the numbers “11:11.” It’s impossible to say whether Ball is contemptuous or infatuated by much of this, but clearly a little of both. As a result, “Here and Now” can also feel like a mashup of “Portlandia” and “Sense8.”

“Here and Now” is definitely interesting, but like anything built on a pile of bric-a-brac, it’s unwieldy and unfocused. After a while, you get the impression that Ball is temporizing while searching for a way to make all these elements fit into a coherent whole, or at least coherent story. Four episodes in, the search is somewhat in vain.

But not entirely. While a couple of characters repel (Greg, mostly), others engage, particularly sweet, clueless Ramon and his harmonic “other,” Fred. Like the story they find themselves in, they’re searching for meaning or a grand unified theory of something, but they know not what. They see the world through an impossibly narrow lens, but every now and then, a symbol or memory or number pops into their field of vision, widening that worldview ever so slightly. There’s a reason these two characters are at the center of “Here and Now.” They’re also the reason to keep watching.

Should you? I will, if only to see how this shakes out. “Now” can be aggravating, but Ball’s ambitions are vaunted. This is his “Leftovers,” his search for the Meaning of It All. He’s earned the right — and often our trust, too.

BOTTOM LINE Maddening “Here and Now” can also be engaging and provocative. The frustration is in never quite knowing what it wants to be.

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