Not much happens in Somebody Somewhere (Sky Comedy), but don’t let that deceive you. This comedy is a stealthy new arrival that doesn’t shout about its charms, but rather lets them unfurl steadily, with surprising beauty. It drops us into the life of Sam (Bridget Everett), a woman in her 40s who has recently moved back to her home town of Manhattan – not that one, Manhattan, Kansas. She returned to take care of her dying sister, but now that her sister is gone, she finds herself stuck, purposeless and lonely.
There is a telltale colour palette to comedies like this, washed out and pale, a sign that the comedy label should be in inverted commas. Like Better Things, Work in Progress and Mrs Fletcher, this is more “if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry” than slapstick-punchline, laugh-track funny; anyone expecting a straightforward gag may need to look elsewhere. Everett plays Sam as lost and weary. She has a morbidly silent job marking exam papers, and the closest person to her now is her niece, Shannon, much to the dismay of Shannon’s mother. The first episode involves some scene-setting: Sam’s mother drinks too much, and her surviving sister is a pressure-cooker of emotions. Life is not so bad that it is harrowing, but the monotony is wearing Sam down. When Sam meets Joel at work, a hint of brightness begins to return to her life.
Joel (a fantastic Jeff Hiller) idolised Sam when they were at school together. She doesn’t remember him, but they were both in “show choir”, which I assume is basically drama club with a focus on songs. Sam was a star of show choir, her Peter Gabriel performance legendary even now. Joel is a pianist at church and takes Sam along to one of the secret cabaret-ish nights he puts on there, while telling the pastor that it is choir practice. Inevitably, Sam starts to exercise her lungs and dive back into her old, long-forgotten talents. Small towns or working-class communities sometimes seem to get a rough ride on television, treated either as crime scenes or with big-city disdain, but this is truthful and affectionate. Everett, who grew up in Manhattan, Kansas herself, has described the show as like an alternate version of her life had she not moved away, and there is an intimacy that shines through.
As a show about found family, rather than the one we are given, this is gorgeous. Sam and Joel’s friendship is honest and warm, and could be just what Sam needs. If Somebody Somewhere sounds sentimental, it is smart enough to take some sandpaper to the edges. Sam is a brittle person, still grieving, overwhelmed by family drama, and there are moments of cruelty and bad behaviour that are painfully observed. Maybe its Sky Comedy home is a bit of a stretch, but it does find gentle humour in absurd, everyday moments. Her dad farts during an apparently profound chat. A former classmate writes a memoir of her time in show choir, and calls it Showgirls. “Does she not know about Showgirls?” asks a friend, incredulous.
This is television that asks big questions on the sly. Sam finds herself completely untethered. She has a job that is not the career she had hoped for. She still sleeps on her dead sister’s sofa. Her idea of a weekend is drinking wine in her pants which, says Joel, sounds kind of lonely. “What are you doing with your life?” asks Sam’s other sister, and Somebody Somewhere tries to answer it. It could have taken the easy path: rags to riches, sadness to happiness, loneliness to friendship. But it chooses a bumpier road and is much lovelier for it. As the series progresses, just like Sam, it starts to find a remarkable voice.