Tim Robbins and Holly Hunter probe race and class issues in new HBO drama Here And Now

Here And Now explores its main characters' disappointment in the crumbling of American liberal democratic ideals, while poking fun at the complacency of educated white liberals themselves.
Here And Now explores its main characters' disappointment in the crumbling of American liberal democratic ideals, while poking fun at the complacency of educated white liberals themselves.PHOTO: HBO ASIA

New HBO drama Here And Now follows the story of a wealthy, educated, white liberal couple who adopt children from Asia, Africa and Latin America

Starring Oscar winners Tim Robbins and Holly Hunter, the provocative new HBO drama Here And Now dissects America's racial and political divisions through the story of a wealthy, educated, white liberal couple who adopt children from Asia, Africa and Latin America.

And creator Alan Ball tells The Straits Times the election of Mr Donald Trump as President of the United States made him even more determined to look at why American democracy is cracking under the weight of such tensions.

Speaking to reporters in Los Angeles recently, the Oscar-winning scribe behind drama American Beauty (1999) - who also created the acclaimed comedy-drama Six Feet Under (2001 to 2005) and vampire show True Blood (2008 to 2014) - says he had started work on the show when Mr Trump scored his shock election victory in November 2016.

"I came in (to the writers' room) the next day and people were devastated and crying and just couldn't believe it. And we opened a bottle of rum and pretty much destroyed it," says the 60-year-old.

"And at one point, I remember saying: 'We have to use this as an opportunity. Because this show can be a way to look at what's going on in America and the rise of racism - the fact that Nazis are marching in America.'

"And to just look at it from a mundane level and see how everybody reacts to it and how different characters, based on who they are and their perspectives, experience it."

The series - available on demand on HBO GO at www.hbogoasia.sg, with new episodes on Mondays - also explores Greg (Robbins) and Audrey's (Hunter) disappointment in the crumbling of American liberal democratic ideals, while at the same time poking fun at the complacency of educated white liberals themselves.

Ball says: "Liberalism did sort of become very satisfied with itself. There is an element of 'Look at us - we're the ones who are right.'"

But he adds: "I still believe that liberals in America seem to care more about people than conservatives do."

The fact that the couple adopted children Ashley (Jerrika Hinton), Duc (Raymond Lee) and Ramon (Daniel Zovatto) from Liberia, Vietnam and Colombia "is a great thing - and they wanted to do it as a way to atone for whatever crimes America had done in those countries that they adopted those children from".

"But at the same time, as Duc says, they wanted to prove to the world how progressive they were."

Hunter, whose character Audrey is one of these smug but well-meaning liberals, says Here And Now is even-handed when it comes to identifying these and other flaws on both sides of the political divide.

"A cool thing about Alan's writing is he can poke fun at everybody," notes the 59-year-old Oscar-and Emmy-winner, who starred in the romantic drama The Piano (1993) and series such as mystery drama Top Of The Lake (2013).

"But I think trying to make the world a better place to a fault makes people more endearing. Because there is an abundance of idealism and it collides with disappointment, failure and reality."

In putting the series together, Ball walked the liberal talk when it came to the hiring of cast, writers and directors.

His fellow executive producer Peter Macdissi, who is also his life partner, convinced him to make an important subplot revolve around a Muslim family.

"When I wrote the pilot, the psychiatrist character was Armenian and Peter said, 'No, he needs to be Muslim - with the (Muslim) travel ban (introduced by Trump) and everything that's going on in America.'"

The 43-year-old Macdissi - who is not Muslim himself, but was born in Lebanon - explains: "How can you talk about America and the world without having a Muslim presence?

"And, of course, there should be Muslims in the show if we're dealing with other ethnicities such as Latinos, Asians and blacks."

In Hollywood, where many writers' rooms are overwhelmingly white and male, this one is more diverse than most: There is a Muslim, two African-Americans, a Taiwanese, a half-Palestinian, three gays and a woman over 60.

There are also three female directors and a female cinematographer who is also Vietnamese.

"It was important, when we were hiring writers, to find people who could bring their own experiences and who could speak to the experience of these characters," says Ball.

Yet he is cautious when asked if a show like this can do anything about the social schisms in America right now. His goal, he says, is merely "to entertain, spark dialogue and provoke thought".

Robbins, 59, is more optimistic about the power of such stories to change attitudes.

"I think that art can do that. Storytelling can be very helpful," says the star, who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for crime drama Mystic River (2004).

It is when people are no longer allowed to tell such stories that things really start to look dire for democracies.

He adds: "In pretty much every society where there's been a move towards authoritarianism or fascism, one of the first enemies are the artists and the writers. And that should give you an idea of the power of literature and art."

• Here And Now is exclusively available on HBO GO (www.hbogoasia.sg).

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 19, 2018, with the headline 'Probing race and politics through drama'. Print Edition | Subscribe