HBO’s new show Here and Now, created by Alan Ball (of Six Feet Under and True Blood fame) captures the ins and outs of a wealthy multiracial family in Portland, Oregon. Do-gooder mom Audrey (Holly Hunter) worries over her grown children’s welfare, while the philosopher father Greg (Tim Robbins) is caught in the midst of a crisis of faith—if you can call it faith.
The first episode shows Duc, their adopted Vietnamese son, working in his role as a “motivational architect,” convincing his clients that the past and future don’t exist—there is only the here and now. In some ways, he takes after his father, who in his younger days as a philosophy professor wrote a canonical text called A Layperson’s Guide to the Here and Now. But Duc shows questionable behavior outside his office walls, recognizing his coaching is something easier said than done. Meanwhile, his father Greg is struggling to make sense of the Trump era we live in. Instead of lecturing about philosophy in the classroom, he loses his decorum and yells at his students to get out, to go walk outside or make love or do something to make an impact. He wants them to live in the here and now, but the here and now looks an awful lot like the hedonistic, selfish behavior he’s condemning in the wider culture. In a particularly poignant scene in the first episode, Greg wears all black and gives a birthday speech to his family and friends where he admits:
“My heart just keeps beating. And I just keep going. I’m a philosopher, whatever that means. Spend most of my life trying to figure out what life is all about. And here I am 60 years old, and I have no f-ing idea. When I was young I thought the purpose of life was to seek enlightenment, to seek a better future, to bring light into the darkness, to reject fear and despair and cynicism, to honor intelligence and reason, to choose love. Love. I feel embarrassed even articulating that because I look at the world…and all I see is ignorance, hatred, terror, and rage. We lost, folks. We lost.”
One of the central questions to the show is not only the idea of living in and for the moment, but trying to figure out what, if anything, the moment means. Does life have meaning? Do we have purpose? How should we spend our time?
When Ramon, the youngest son of the family, begins to have uncanny visions that make him question his own sanity, these questions become even more paramount.
This question of meaning is a central one for me, one I keep coming back to. I want to know the reasons behind things, what’s meant to be, what my role is in the grand scheme of things. This is why I believe in God, why a relationship with a higher power has become so important in my life. The truth is, I pray all the time, constantly. I ask for God’s guidance if I have to enter a stressful situation. I ask for God’s presence. I ask to submit myself to God’s will, recognizing there may be things I don’t know about the turns in my life that are best left up to something greater and more mystical than I am.
But maybe my constant seeking is part of the problem, part of what’s keeping me from just being in the here and now. If I’m always craning my neck to look, if I’m wandering this way and that, trying to find some thing—even if that thing is divine—I can’t take pleasure in the moment that’s already given to me. I can’t see what’s right in front of my face. And there’s no peace in that.
Is there meaning to this world?
I think so. I think our actions have meaning, whether good or bad. But I also think we often get to that meaning through stillness, through the quiet of practicing of being in the here and now.
I’m not as cynical as Greg the philosopher, who sees only the worst of humankind. If I seek good, I know I will find it. In fact, I see it all around me, in the kind deeds of other people, the love they share, the generosity. But in addition to keeping my eyes open for that goodness, I am also going to make time to close my eyes and experience stillness, calm, quiet, the power to just be rather than looking so, so hard for what I assume is better, or what’s next.