Toto, I have a feeling we’re in Kansas…Manhattan, Kansas to be precise. It’s the conservative hometown of Sam (Bridget Everett, who hails from the town herself), a middle-aged woman who returned there to care for her terminally ill sister, Holly, and where she still finds herself living six month’s after her sister’s passing. Sleeping on the couch and yet to sort through her late sibling’s belongings, we meet her as she’s processing her grief and struggling to find her place within her family and the town. During a shift at her mundane job at a school exam grading centre, Sam is comforted by a colleague, Joel (Jeff Hiller), when a mediocre piece of writing makes her emotional. It transpires that Joel and Sam were in the same year at high school and both members of its show choir, but although Joel idolizes his former classmate for her coolness and her singing talent, she has no recollection of him. She is kind enough to pretend that she does though, but the sweet-natured Joel is unconvinced, yet unfazed.
Somewhat reluctantly, Sam agrees to go along to Joel’s after-hours Choir Practice, an unsanctioned “church-adjacent” gathering in his shopping mall-based Presbyterian church where Manhattan residents who feel like outsiders for whatever reason can come together with like-minded folks to socialize and perform. Even more reluctantly, she takes to the stage under pressure from Joel to sing a duet with him, a gorgeous reworking of Don’t Give Up, with Everett on the Peter Gabriel parts and Joel doing the Kate Bush bits from behind the keyboard. It’s a delicate, moving, and uplifting sequence that showcases Everett’s exceptional vocal and acting skills beautifully as we see the person she once was—before immense grief, loneliness, and life got in the way—begin to break through to the surface.
These weekly evenings are hosted by the snazzily-dressed MC, Fred Rococo (New York comedy legend, Murray Hill), who brings intentionally old-school stage banter, warmth, and a salt of the earth charm to the proceedings. Speaking of earth, he happens to be a soil scientist by day at the local university. The only reference to Fred’s gender identity is a subtle exchange between him and a waiter who calls him ‘sir’ before going on to unintentionally misgender him, with Fred gently asserting, “No, you got it right the first time”. It’s typical of the show’s approach to its LGBTQ+ characters who, fully integrated into the narrative, aren’t signposted or othered, they’re just allowed to exist. Joel, a rare gay character of faith on screen, has his fair share of anxieties and insecurities but refreshingly none of them are to do with his sexuality or fear of rejection from his church, and he’s in a loving relationship with his boyfriend. Much like its fellow HBO series We’re Here, Somebody Somewhere offers a vision of life far from LA, New York, or the nation’s other major cities, where folks who don’t “fit in” can unapologetically, sometimes bravely, be their authentic selves without having to move away from where they grew up as the generations before them generally felt compelled to. As the lyrics of Don’t Give Up encourage, “somewhere there’s a place for us”. But sometimes you have to create that place for yourself, as Joel has.
As Dorothy learned in Oz, there’s no place like home. But for Sam, her childhood home is tension-filled with her mother Mary Jo (Jane Brody) drinking too much, her long-suffering, unassuming father Ed (Mike Hagerty) struggling to cope, and a persistent strained relationship with her surviving sister Tricia (Mary Catherine Garrison). Disapproving and judgmental, Tricia comes out with phrases like “love the sinner, hate the sin” when complaining that Sam has given one of Holly’s “gay-assed” t-shirts to her teenaged daughter Shannon (Kailey Albus). The t-shirt in question by the way, happens to be a pretty cool Lez Zeppelin number. Meanwhile, as a Kansas twister brews—both figurative and literal—across the season’s seven episodes, Sam becomes increasingly convinced that her brother-in-law, Ricky (Danny McCarthy), is up to something behind Shannon’s back.
Choir Practice, on the other hand, is an accepting, inclusive environment of chosen family and harmony, and Sam begins to cautiously form close connections with Joel and Fred. The easy chemistry between Everett, Hiller, and Murray—all wonderful in their roles—makes their scenes together a delight. The season-opener and two further episodes are directed by one of the series’ executive producers, Jay Duplass, who sets an invitingly unhurried pace with exquisitely observed, unforced, gentle humour, and a tone that easily shifts from hilarious one moment to deeply poignant the next. While Robert Cohen directs the rest of the season, capturing nuanced performances from the entire ensemble. It’s a show where well-drawn characters are allowed breathing space to just be without being manipulated to fit in with the plot. Somebody Somewhere is more concerned with what happens in between the plot points.
Given the circumstances of a grieving family and a drifting central character, there’s an emotionally rich undercurrent that’s drawn on by creators Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen—who write four of the episodes, with Patricia Breen writing the other three—in a free-flowing way that’s completely captivating. This series is a breath of fresh air and I hope we get to spend more time with Sam in future seasons.
By James Kleinmann
Somebody Somewhere premieres on HBO on Sunday January 16th at 10:30pm ET/PT on HBO and streams on HBO Max.
Read our exclusive interview with Somebody Somewhere stars Bridget Everett, Jeff Hiller, and Murray Hill.