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This Is Us: Notes on the New Era of the Family Drama

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This Is Us: Notes on the New Era of the Family Drama

The Bayer-Boatwrights might’ve been grown in a Petri dish in the Portlandia writers’ room. Greg (Tim Robbins), the depressed paterfamilias, is a philosopher still coasting on the success of his first book, A Layperson’s Guide to the Here and Now. His wife, Audrey (Holly Hunter), is a meddlesome former therapist and the founder of The Empathy Initiative, which mediates disputes among students at the local high school. Of their four children, the three eldest were adopted from abroad: Ashley (Jerrika Hinton), born in Liberia, is the founder of an online fashion retailer; Duc (Raymond Lee), born in Vietnam, is a “motivational architect” (I couldn’t even begin to tell you); and Ramon (Daniel Zovatto), from Colombia, is a video game designer. In order, they are 1) in a biracial marriage, 2) abstinent, and 3) gay. Oh, and Ramon is suffering hallucinations that may or may not mean he’s a genetic aberration/the second coming of the baby Jesus. Even “the boring white chick in the family,” 17-year-old Kristen (Sosie Bacon), sports a horse’s head mask to her father’s 60th birthday party. I know, I know. It’s a lot, and then some: In Here and Now, the latest curio from Six Feet Under creator Alan Ball, “boring” is, well, relative.

As a portrait of liberal America in the age of Trump—perhaps the most explicit reaction to the presidential election yet to appear on (fictional) television—HBO’s new series often reads as a lecture, or a soapbox rant. Though it gestures at a genuine range of opinions on the limits of empathy, it is, following its patriarch, “the sage on the stage,” less interested in listening than in being listened to: “It lulls you into complacency,” Greg says to his students on the subject, “so I can fuck you even harder.” Here and Now sees itself, I think, as an incisive examination of the privileged left that also resists the urge to “hear out” the right, but its characterization of both sides is mostly so flat that it becomes part of the very problem it identifies, sacrificing radicalism, political and aesthetic, for the safety of the middle class, the middlebrow, the middle of the road. Despite its nods at the “texture” of Portland, then—patchouli and frankincense organic soy candles, a family picnic in Forest Park—Here and Now comes nearer to caricature than Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s loving send-up; its language is that of the pamphlet, the manifesto, the philosophical treatise, a burden of abstract nouns. Still, at the risk of playing Pollyanna, I’d suggest that Here and Now succeeds as a reinterpretation of the family drama, or, failing that, traces the shape of its most recent exemplars. Love it or hate it (four episodes in, I’m still on the fence), Here and Now is, in its way, the ideal emblem of the genre’s new era. Ball’s most egregious abstraction, after all, is the definition of “family” sewn on a pillow: “a group of people that rely on each other; unconditional love.”

Though the family drama is so ubiquitous on TV that “renaissance” sounds infelicitous, Here and Now, on the heels of The Fosters (Freeform, 2013-present), Transparent (Amazon, 2014-present), Jane the Virgin (The CW, 2014-present), Queen Sugar (OWN, 2016-present), and This Is Us (NBC, 2016-present), is part of the first full flowering of the genre since the debut of Big Love (HBO), Brothers & Sisters (ABC), and Friday Night Lights (NBC), all of which aired from 2006-2011. Add in the missing link of NBC’s Parenthood (NBC, 2010-2015) and it’s possible to trace the genealogy of the genre back to Ball himself: For me, this century’s finest entry is still Six Feet Under, which ended in 2005.

Omissions and misclassifications aside—in its combination of timing and subject matter, Switched at Birth (Freeform, 2011-2017) is something of an outlier in my schema, with a foot in both camps—my point is that the family drama no longer belongs to Walkers and Taylors and Henricksons and Bravermans. The genre’s new era now reflects our own “blended” families, in every sense of the term. It’s the Villaneuva/Solanos, of Jennie Snyder-Urman’s winking telenovela, with a Venezuelan-Czech-American family tree so complex it’s also the series’ premise. It’s the Pfeffermans, of Jill Soloway’s half-hour dramedy, affluent, Jewish Angelenos with connections to Weimar Germany and modern Israel. It’s the Fosters, a family in the San Diego suburbs that includes—deep breath—a police officer, her wife, the former’s biological son with her ex-husband/patrol partner, the women’s two adopted children, and two foster children (later adopted), who are themselves half-siblings. This really is us, here and now: more urban than rural, multiethnic and multigenerational, immigrant and native-born, biological, adopted and fostered, straight, bisexual, gay and transgender, white, black, Latinx and Asian, a multigenre culture finally beginning to see itself in the multigenre “family dramas” by which we define what “America” looks like, at least when it comes to TV.

Here and Now so thoroughly distills these ingredients it almost single-handedly turns them into tropes, to the point that it might be seen as meta-textual: a family drama about the family drama, and the form’s traditional tear-streaked escapism. The series’ animating interest is the idea of the (ideological) “bubble”—whether a liberal enclave, or for that matter a family, is a refuge from the world beyond its walls, or simply a prison in which to live out the siege. “I look at the world—and not even the world; here, now—and all I see is ignorance, hatred, terror and rage,” Greg says in the speech he gives at his birthday party. “We lost, folks. We lost.” When Here and Now works, it’s in that “here, now,” and not “the world,” run through with an intermittently potent understanding that families contain their own politics, changing priorities and shifting alliances, backbiting, infighting, compromising. If the series has a dramatic motor, it’s the sandpapery roughness of kinship, the acknowledgment that what’s done out of love can rub us raw, too. A visit to Planned Parenthood, a family meeting, a romantic set-up, a thoughtless remark: The friction that arises from these ordinary occurrences is the real limit of empathy, that term with which we mislabel pity more often than we’d like to admit.

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I suspect this is a knowing provocation on Ball’s part—Here and Now inverts the foundational convention of the family drama, which is that love and understanding conquer all. It is, in essence, the anti-This Is Us: cold, unsentimental and expressly political where NBC’s sophomore melodrama is warm, saccharine, and studiously neutral. (It even has its own “twist,” though Ramon’s hallucinations—of his birth mother, for instance, or the number 11:11—are so clumsily rendered they’re almost unwatchable.) But in its critique of the genre, at once fascinating and frustrating, Here and Now offers pity, not empathy. It sees the family drama, idealistic and strenuously likable, as a rose-colored “bubble” of its own, a Mary Sue of the airwaves.

This may be fair, especially as it relates to This Is Us, which mines the death of the beloved Jack Pearson (Milo Ventimiglia) for so much of the series’ emotion (and “suspense”) that he becomes as much a messianic prop as he is a character in his own right. What Here and Now loses sight of, though, what it buries in its avalanche of abstractions, is its own insight that the contemporary family drama is political, and not simply because it is no longer straight as an arrow or lily white. In addition to the “issues” it tends to raise (and the aforementioned series confront pretty much every issue under the sun), the genre is built, to crib from campaign managers since time immemorial, on a politics of “process.” Ultimately, the appeal of the family drama is its size: Its problems are profound, and often enduring, yet in the genre’s “here, now,” they are also manageable, soluble, in a way that’s rarely the case in the wider world. This seems to me more instructive than Here and Now’s more acrid complexion, in part because the central lesson of this or any other political moment—of calls to congressmen and protests at airports and participation in municipal or special elections—is that the activism of small actions does in fact matter.

It’s telling, then, that the finest family drama currently on television—the one that brings the most aesthetic and emotional precision to bear on the defining features of the genre’s new era—is the one that threads the needle most effectively between convention and critique. Ava DuVernay’s underrated Queen Sugar, which follows Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner), Nova (Rutina Wesley), and Ralph Angel Bordelon (Kofi Siriboe) after the death of their father, Ernest, shares with Here and Now, This Is Us, and its other competitors an interest in blended families—Charley is Nova and Ralph Angel’s biracial half-sister, and though she spent summers growing up on the family sugarcane farm in south Louisiana, she was largely raised in California by her mother, Lorna (Sharon Lawrence)—but dispenses with the gimmickry of supernatural visions and timeline “twists.” It’s political—Nova’s a reporter and activist in New Orleans; Charley’s son, Micah (Nicholas L. Ashe) has a life-altering run-in with a racist cop—but its politics are built into its deft treatment of race and class, not painted on as part of a sermon. It’s not absent sentiment, but it’s not sunk by it, either; in fact, if there’s one word Queen Sugar conjures—in its humid landscapes, its careful compositions, its recognition of both the challenges of being together and the pain of coming apart—it’s “elemental.”

In this, DuVernay reaches back further than Parenthood, or Brothers & Sisters, or even Six Feet Under: Queen Sugar might be a bayou East of Eden, or August Wilson on the Mississippi, weaving together the histories of its characters, its setting, and its genre into a thick description of family life, one as rich as the soil beneath its feet. This finds fullest expression in a pair of episodes from the superb second season, “Line of Our Elders” and “I Know My Soul,” in which the Bordelon siblings’ resentments erupt at a contentious dinner. Set on the first anniversary of their father’s death, the episodes are reminiscent of an old-fashioned, “to be continued…” two-parter—the first, which ends in the midst of the Bordelons’ bitter quarrel, establishes the reasons for the characters’ anger, and the second attempts to assuage it.

On its face, the issue is Ralph Angel’s discovery of a letter from Ernest that bequeaths the farm solely to him. As in most families, though—yours, mine—the Bordelons fail to discern the line separating catalyst and cause; the gentle beauty of “Line of Our Elders,” of which the very first words are “our family,” lay in its handling of the distinction, introducing us to the buried roots of the dispute before the Bordelons themselves manage to unearth them. The siblings’ desperate need to live up to Ernest’s expectations, even—maybe especially— after his passing, is at once their most essential shared trait and the force that pries their relationship open. Charley founds the sugar mill of the title as a monument to her father; Nova, childless, bristles at the sacrifices he made to keep Ralph Angel’s son in clothes, and the pressure he put on her to give him a grandchild; Ralph Angel sees his sisters’ reaction to the letter as profoundly unforgiving, having rebuilt his life after time spent in prison.

The brilliance of Queen Sugar, then, is that it applies the innovations of the new family drama—in particular the ardent belief that the “us” of “this is us” must include Bordelons as well as Bravermans, that the “here, now” requires, as both political and aesthetic act, more space for women and people of color in front of and behind the camera—to its classic concerns, to family legacies, long-held secrets, love and recriminations, understanding and blame. It is neither idealistic enough to suggest that all problems are soluble nor hopeless enough to dismiss the importance of small actions, in part because it is elemental, like tall grass and cane fields and southern live oaks. As their surrogate mother and Ernest’s sister, Aunt Vi (the tremendous Tina Lifford), says of the siblings’ terrible argument, “that land ain’t nothin’ but a mess of pottage”: When it comes to family, the terms of endearment (or estrangement) are not abstractions—they’re those contained in recipes, photographs, birthday cards, wedding banns, the materials on which, as we say in the aftermath of floods and fires, we cannot place a price.

Here and Now premieres Sunday, Feb. 11 at 9 p.m. on HBO. This Is Us resumes Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC after the Winter Olympics. Season One of Queen Sugar is now streaming on Hulu.



Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.

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