If Alan Ball weren’t Alan Ball, he might have named his new HBO series something a little more on the nose, like “Liberal Idealism Gets a Reality Check.”
But Ball, creator of HBO’s “Six Feet Under” and “True Blood,” prefers to let the audience draw its own conclusions from his work. This is the Oscar-winning screenwriter of “American Beauty,” remember. He likes to explore what it’s like not to be like everyone else.
His latest series, “Here and Now,” premiering Sunday, is a bit upfront about its concerns. The drama tells the story of a white couple who met while students at the University of California-Berkeley, fell in love, and wanted to change the world. So they got married and did their part – or what they believed was their part: They adopted children from nations to which the United States had done horrible things.
They built their globally representative family with a boy from Vietnam, a girl from Liberia, and another boy from Colombia. To this brood, they eventually added a biological girl of their own. Turns out, building their family with symbolic blocks from around the world doesn’t make life any better or easier to figure out. Now grown and living their lives, these children are each trying to find out who they are, and sometimes it has nothing to do with from whence they came, and sometimes it does.
The family, living in Portland, is planning for dad Gary’s 60th birthday. And Gary (Tim Robbins), a philosophy professor, has to admit that he has no idea what life is all about. Their daughter, Ashley (Jerrika Hinton), married with a child, is sabotaging her home life and doesn’t know why. Duc (Raymond Lee), a “motivational architect” (or life coach), practices a celibate life, which worries his family. And Ramon (Daniel Zovatto), just starting a relationship with a baristo (the male version of a barista), has started hallucinating, and starts seeing a Muslim psychiatrist (Peter Macdissi), who has religion and family issues of his own to work through.
And then there’s Kristen (Sosie Bacon), who, at 17, finds herself glaringly, boringly white, compared to her multi-ethnic siblings.
And Audrey (Holly Hunter), the therapist/counselor mom? She’s just trying to hold things together and maintain hope that she, Gary, and her children will remain sane in a world that seems to be falling apart.
“Here and Now” is packed with Oscar talent – in addition to creator Ball’s screenplay award, Robbins earned his best supporting actor statue for “Mystic River,” and Hunter earned her best actress honor for “The Piano” – and the kind of situations that seemed pulled right out of today’s real life. Perhaps that’s why Ball named it what he did. “Here and Now” premieres at 8 p.m. Sunday on HBO.
Speaking of being pulled from real life: Also premiering Sunday is “Our Cartoon President,” which is basically just what the title implies. Airing on Showtime and not-so-loosely based on actual events, this animated show leaves no one from the Trump administration out: House Speaker Paul Ryan’s widow’s peak is quite prominent, Vice President Mike Pence looks as if sunlight has never touched his skin, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has ears like a mouse and can barely be seen above the table, and the president himself practically glows in the dark. Stephen Colbert is one of the executive producers and creators, and several of the jokes have his signature snark, and maybe a bit of truthfulness, too. The first episode deals with Trump’s anxiety over the upcoming State of the Union address, and his wedding anniversary, and plenty of well-rung notes are hit: his affinity for “Fox & Friends” and Twitter, the story of how he won the election (suitably embellished), his inept sons, and that pesky Russia investigation. As inspiration for the speech, he pops in a highlight reel of sorts, actual footage of memorable moments from his campaign. It does the trick, and he hits on an idea to “win the State of the Union.” Not surprisingly, “Our Cartoon President” is billed as “The Highest Rated Show of All Time!” The phenomenon begins with two back-to-back episodes starting at 7 p.m. Sunday on Showtime.
Speaking of being not-so-loosely based on reality: The seventh season of Showtime’s “Homeland” premieres Sunday and, once again, Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) finds herself up against multiple enemies: the truth, and her possible misperception of the truth. Last season, Carrie and her trusted but shrinking network of sources – Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin) and Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend) – uncovered a plot to kill the nation’s first female president, Elizabeth Keane (Elizabeth Marvel), who had enlisted the former CIA agent’s help on national security and intelligence issues. The president, whose life was saved by the sacrifice of Quinn’s, grew increasingly paranoid even after Carrie pointed her in the direction of the plot’s ringleader, and had 200 members of the intelligence community arrested, including Saul. This season, Carrie has moved back to Washington, but she has no affiliation with the president or the CIA – she’s on her own, trying to free the uncharged intelligence agents, trying to find out the motivation behind the president’s paranoia. As usual, no one wants to believe her, and she doubts herself: Are her theories the result of analytical insight, or the ravings of a delusional mentally ill person off her meds? And when Saul is made the administration’s National Security Advisor, he becomes the central figure in negotiating the conflict brought by an armed resistance led by an online figure deeply critical of the president and unhappy with the direction the country is taking. Needless to say, it’s all very twisty and tense and uncertain as to what will happen next … just like a good season of “Homeland” should be. The seventh season premieres at 8 p.m. Sunday on Showtime.
Isn’t it romantic? Love is in the air when several Valentine’s Day specials come around. Friday, it’s “Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown,” followed by “A Charlie Brown Valentine” (SPOILER ALERT: Charlie doesn’t win the heart of the little red-haired girl in either show), airing at 7 p.m. on Ch. 27.
Then “The Bachelor” franchise goes global – and Olympic – with “The Bachelor Winter Games,” a four-part series bringing together singles from other countries and favorites from past seasons at a lodge in Vermont for some romance and friendly competition – in events including ice dancing and biathlon – where winners will get date cards. Will international love blossom? The games begin Tuesday and continue Thursday, Feb. 20, and wrap up Feb. 22; each show begins at 7 p.m. on Ch. 27.
And it’s all about the love – and laughs – with “Relationships Just for Laughs,” Wednesday on the CW. Comedians share their thoughts on the subject in these clips from various “Just for Laughs” festivals, held annually in Montreal. It’s followed by a countdown of “The Top 14 Greatest Valentine’s Day Movies of All Time”: Dean Cain counts ’em down (as ranked by Popstar magazines), reliving those heartfelt scenes of romance from the all-time greats: “Pretty Woman,” “Sleepless in Seattle,” “Love Actually,” “The Notebook,” and most likely 10 more. The love-fest begins at 7 p.m. on Ch. 15.2.