If you were to throw a dart at a map of America, aiming for the very center, you’d probably hit within a hundred miles of where I live, nestled in what some people refer to as “flyover country.” If you’re unfamiliar with this term, it refers to the kind of land that looks like agricultural patchwork from on high as your plane makes its way to a more popular destination. Even while living here, it’s hard not to sometimes feel like life is passing you by as family and friends either move out of state, change into someone you don’t recognize, or even pass on. It’s a very isolating feeling until you remember that other people are going through the same experience. HBO’s new dramedy Somebody Somewhere is set in such corners of the world and is a perfect reminder of the funny and flawed humans that populate these spaces.
Taking place in Manhattan, Kansas, Bridget Everett plays Sam Miller, a woman adrift in mid-life. After living away for a while, hometown gravity has brought her back to a joyless job, a family that doesn’t get her, and sleeping on the couch in her dead sister Holly’s house. You never get flashbacks to when Holly was alive, no scenes of sisterly bonding. Instead the series is rooted firmly to the present. Holly is gone and the bruises of her passing linger on all the members of the Miller family. Sam’s mother is in denial about her alcoholism, her kindly father keeps his head buried in the sand, and her sister Tricia shields herself in faith and work at her new boutique store. This fractured family unit has meant that Sam has been largely alone until she reconnects with a former classmate, Joel (Jeff Hiller), who introduces her to “Choir Practice,” a hangout space for the queer and anyone else who doesn’t really fit in with Kansas culture at large. By bringing Sam into the fold, Joel performs an act of resuscitation for her, opening her back up to the world, and with it comes equal parts uncertainty and new life.
The seven episodes might feel a bit short, especially for anyone looking for a longer binge, but thankfully a second season is on the horizon. Given the brief length, it’s a credit to the cast on how lived-in this corner of the world feels, like slipping on a well loved shirt. Everett shines in her leading role. Her background as a comedic cabaret performer serves her well in the show’s musical moments, which given Everett’s talent it’s no wonder the showrunners fit in so many of them. She also infuses Sam’s insecurities and heartbreak with a humane sense of vulnerability. She may have the occasional breakdown at work, who hasn’t, but her deflective jokes feel natural, less like made-for-TV-quips and more like a normal person trying to play it cool as they ugly sob into a tissue. By the end of the season, it’s a joy to see her spring back to life, able to pay forward the care that other have put into her. Speaking as someone well aware of the erosion of his social life the past couple pandemic years, watching Sam open up to herself and others feels a bit like rooting for myself.
The rest of the cast is just as stellar, particularly the show’s secret weapon, Fred Rococo (Fredrick Coco to friends, Professor Doctor Fred Rococo to students). Played by Murray Hill, Fred is a warm balance to the turmoil that most of the other characters are working through. He’s always there to offer an ear, advice, or even a pretzel schmetzel dog for moral support. But it’s Hiller as Joel that often steals the scene. His friendship is the catalyst that brings Sam out of her shell and much of the first season is composed of their hangout scenes, from ineffectively staking out a shady family member to working through a crisis of faith. Despite being pretty different on paper – Joel is hopeful and a bit religious while Sam is cynical and doesn’t think about the future – their friendship is effortless and they bring out the best in each other, even when they’re at their lowest. In a moment early on, Sam finds Joel’s dreamboard, a collage of the various things he would like to accomplish in life. Still smarting from a recent round of judgment from her sister, there’s an edge of condescension to her words when she asks if he wants to do all of it in Kansas. Joel responds simply, “This is where I live […] We deserve to be happy.” There is a form of social pressure that insists LGBTQ individuals (or anyone with progressive values) need to flee to the big city in order to be who they really are, when in reality community can be wherever you find yourself– as long as you care for others. Joel’s words bury themselves in Sam’s worldview and we watch over the course of the season as she uses them to mend herself.
The show doesn’t shy away from hardship, like Sam’s mom seeking treatment for alcoholism or a subplot about infidelity within Sam’s family. These threads aren’t treated as sensationalism but rather the actions of hurting and lonely people who deserve at least some measure of empathy. If there’s a theme it’s about bearing each other’s burdens, a mantra from Christianity that many Middle America Christians have forgotten. The show is religious, not in a preaching way but rather a sense of family. It would also be a weird choice to set a series in the Great Plains Bible Belt and not have it touch on Christianity. It presents individuals from all along the spectrum of Christianity, from how Tricia uses it as a weapon to keep grief away to Joel’s quiet sense of compassion for the world around him. The portrayal of Joel’s faith in particular feels like a breath of fresh air for someone like me, someone who even after largely leaving the church, I still cheer for it to be better like a hometown sports team. His sexuality and his faith are never shown to be at odds with each other, they’re just part of who he is. It’s complicated but so are we all.
During undergrad, I spent a lot of time in a small central Kansas college town. It wasn’t my school but I had quite a few friends who attended so I wound up spending quite a few weekends there. Despite the young population, it was the kind of town with no stoplights, no bars, and an hour away from anywhere. That didn’t matter as we always made do with our own options to entertain ourselves. Some of my favorite memories are of my friends and I doing nothing but just hanging out and talking. I, like anyone in their early 20’s, thought those relationships were permanent. Now a decade on and we’re all scattered to the wind, drifting into different lives all our own. Sam also took relationships for granted. She had been friends with Joel in high school but had grown apart and even forgotten about him to the point where in the pilot episode he has to reintroduce himself. Like Sam, it’s taken me a while to relearn how to reconnect with old friends, a process made all the more difficult by pandemic social skill erosion. It’s hard knowing that you had the most friends when you weren’t at your best. That’s part of the beauty of Somebody Somewhere, that it knows people aren’t perfect and are often bad at being friends and family. It doesn’t make excuses for the worst of our tendencies, it can be painful bending ourselves to head towards where we need to go, but it affirms that our happiness isn’t tied to location or our loss but rather how we lift others up.
An MFA graduate from Oklahoma State University, Wyeth Leslie is a poet and author interested in the intersection between technology, the environment, and human relationships. His writings have been featured in publications such as The Vital Sparks, Lost Futures, and Haywire Magazine. He can be found staring into the abyss on Twitter: @Wyeth_was_here