Bridget Everett’s ‘Somebody Somewhere’ Finds Heartfelt Dramedy in Small-Town Woes 

People can feel like their life is at a standstill in both big cities and small towns. It can just seem more hellish in a small town where everyone knows you and the word spreads quickly that you’ve come back home without achieving your big plans. That is life for Sam (Bridget Everett), the main character of the HBO dramedy “Somebody Somewhere.” When Sam strikes a friendship with Joel (Jeff Hiller), who is gay in a place where such an identity stands out, they become one of those great pairings defined by honesty. That is also part of the special tone of this show. It can be funny and oddball, yet also endearing for how authentic it feels. No one feels too implausible and everyone could be someone we could bump into today. “Our showrunners came up with the idea and then we were all in the writer’s room fleshing out the details,” Everett told Entertainment Voice, “We drew parallels between Sam and me. It just felt custom-built so I was super excited to get to dive in and take a crack at her.”

Sam and Joel are in their 40s and meet at work in the town of Manhattan, Kansas. Returning after a ten-year absence, Sam is grappling with the recent death of her sister Holly, whom she cared for as a serious illness took her away, and the sense everyone sees her as a failure. Now Sam works grading standardized tests in an environment that looks soul-crushingly monotonous. Joel seems to be the only person who approaches Sam with empathy and respect. They went to the same high school and Joel remembers when Sam killed it in show choir. Sam tags along into Joel’s own corner of town which is a gay-accepting church where Joel also hosts late night “choir practices,” these are fun get-togethers celebrating the local queer community. It’s a better environment than Sam’s own family. Her pretentious suburbanite sister, Tricia (Mary Catherine Garrison), makes it clear she doesn’t want Sam influencing her daughter. Sam’s farmer dad, Ed (Mike Hagerty), is struggling to take concrete steps to treat his wife’s alcoholism. Joel brings a needed jolt of enthusiasm to Sam’s life, even as he himself stubbornly holds on to simple dreams of domestic bliss that feel far away.

“Somebody Somewhere” works as a fantastic alignment of good writing and great casting. Showrunners Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen, with Jay and Mark Duplass also as executive producers, defy some of the mold when it comes to recent shows about small town USA. They are not passing judgment on Manhattan, the place just feels suffocating for two adults in their 40s who are facing uncertainty. Bridget Everett, who is known for her bold, dynamic work in stand-up and alternative cabaret, and happens to be an actual native of Manhattan, Kansas, is brilliantly likable yet melancholic. She’s an emotionally injured, increasingly pessimistic person hiding a vivacious personality. She can crack a raunchy joke with a flirty neighbor before retreating into her shell. When Joel pushes her to sing at his choir practices she almost blooms back into the high school singer she once was. Life isn’t nice, however, and Sam is constantly bombarded by apathetic family members, worries about her aging parents and crippling lack of self-confidence. When a former classmate publishes a gossipy tell-all book about their high school class, Sam is accused in its pages of a particular practice involving tampons. 

This is not a depressing show by any means. Everett and Hiller have a crackling chemistry that also makes it quite fun. Hiller, an openly gay actor of small roles who like Everett finally gets to shine, goes against the grain of gay representation in small town shows. He likes Manhattan and while finding a solid queer community may be more difficult than in a big city, he has a sense of purpose in organizing the choir practices and doing work for the church. “I grew up going to church and I was a theology major at Texas Lutheran College. So it was deep in my soul. I’ve just never seen another show with a gay character like this. I mean, other shows do have gay characters having some kind of relationship with the church but it’s not always positive (laughs),” Hiller told Entertainment Voice about the unique writing of Joel. Difficulties and tensions arise from very simple, quirky and human situations. Joel’s boyfriend Michael (Jon Hudson Odom), starts getting unsettled because Sam seems to be intruding into their alone time. She’s becoming that third wheel who doesn’t get it when Michael plans a date with Joel, tagging along thinking it’s a group thing. Joel also hasn’t bothered to tell the church minister about his events, so the threat hangs over his mind that it could get shut down.

“Somebody Somewhere” is not a buddy sitcom but a real dramedy about finding that bond with someone that can feel like a life raft. When you’re feeling down there is the constant threat of projecting as well. When Joel shows Sam his collage of photos, which represent his dreams of having a family and successful future, Sam mercilessly tells him it’s absurd to ponder any of this in your 40s. She’s in that limbo state of mind where if you haven’t reached your goals by now then you never will. Surrounding this core relationship are still bits of great slapstick humor. Sam notices Tricia’s husband, who seems to be sitting on the couch all the time playing video games, has an unusually thick roll of cash in his shorts. She immediately starts snooping around to see if he’s a drug dealer on the side. It’s a good way to kill depressed boredom in this town. Supporting characters also channel the joy Sam is so desperately lacking, like Fred Rococo (New York drag king Murray Hill), an agriculture professor and participant in Joel’s choir practices who has the most style in town, and helps Sam with aid for the family farm.

There isn’t much “plot” going on in “Somebody Somewhere.” The very tone of the show is structured around Sam and Joel as two outsiders coming together. At its best it’s about those moments where you share lunch with someone who finally seems to get you, through the worst and best aspects of your personality at the moment. When Sam says something that cuts deep, Joel is hurt but forgives her in the way true friends put aside impulsive mistakes. Everett and Hiller are so good we can’t imagine anyone else as these characters. Whether viewers are watching from a metropolis or isolated corner of the map, “Somebody Somewhere” speaks to anyone trying to feel good even when time feels like it’s rushing ahead and leaving us behind. As Hiller frames it, “When we talk about red states and blue states, big cities and small towns, we have this monolithic idea of the people living in those places. But everyone is so much more than that.”

Somebody Somewhere” season one premieres Jan. 16 and airs Sundays at 10:30 p.m. ET on HBO.