Somebody Somewhere, a spiky and endearing seven-part HBO series created by and starring the comedian, actor and singer Bridget Everett, begins in the quiet aftermath of loss. Sam, a 40-something woman played by Everett, is struggling to adjust to life in her hometown of Manhattan, Kansas (also Everett’s hometown), where she returned a year prior to take care of her beloved sister Holly during an illness.
Six months after her death, Sam works as an unenthusiastic grader of standardized tests and sleeps on Holly’s couch; she still can’t bring herself to touch Holly’s bed. Sam is a void, turned inward and speaking little, a fuck-up to everyone other than a sympathetic coworker and former high school classmate, Joel (Jeff Hiller), who remembers her as a “big fucking deal” in their show choir days (hence the BFD title of the first episode, written by co-creators Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen and directed by executive producer Jay Duplass).
Quiet is not how one would describe Everett, a fixture on the New York comedy scene as a bawdy, thunderous performer of alternative cabaret (signature ribald songs include titties, what I gotta do to get that dick in my mouth? and keep it in your pants song). HBO has billed Somebody Somewhere as a “coming-of-middle-age” story and that’s pretty accurate – both for Sam, reeling from the loss of the only person who seems to have understood her, and for the 49-year-old Everett, in her first leading series role after years of bit parts (perhaps most famously on Inside Amy Schumer).
Everett’s stage persona is larger than life – her operatic voice, her libido, her body and especially her boobs, with which she has been known to motorboat audience members. Sam, by contrast, is a repressed, unconfident alter ego of the brash performer, a fictionalized vision of what might be, had Everett not left the “Little Apple” for the big one, or was tampered down instead of emboldened. Sam lumbers between her snooty sister Tricia’s (Mary Catherine Garrison) house and her parents’ farm, stuck and unsure, dressed down in oversized clothes, alone. She is a singer at heart and the author of Everett’s own dirty songs, but afraid of the grief music will expose.
Sensing her potential, Joel, a gay Christian with his own complicated relationship to his hometown, invites Sam to his “choir practice” – a deceptively titled celebration of music and queerness and a haven for the town’s misfits. The first episode’s climactic scene, as with half the episodes of the series, is a moving musical number: Sam, with Joel’s coaxing, embraces the stage for the first time in years. The moment, played to convincingly high stakes by both Everett and Hiller, cements the two central romances of the series: Sam’s re-embrace of singing, and thus her more honest self, and the tender, tart, altogether winning friendship between her and Joel at an age when most adults seem to eschew making new platonic confidantes.
Both relationships are a joy to watch blossom, even if they’re not always the most exciting. One’s enjoyment of Somebody Somewhere depends somewhat on your threshold for backseat plot – there are buried resentments and secrets, tense conversations and occasional blowups, but little external conflict or antagonism. For the most part, everyone on the show (even Tricia) is a good person at heart doing their best, trying to communicate and making small realizations along the way.
Though filmed in Illinois, the show’s many interstitial shots of cornfields and a cutesy college town street (Manhattan is home to Kansas State University) effectively conjures a midwestern town: warmhearted, a little sleepy, unassuming and full of characters if you know where to look, such as Sam and Joel’s friend Fred Rococo, the master of choir practice ceremonies played by the New York drag king, Murray Hill.
The main draw, though, is Everett, whom I would watch do anything after imbuing Sam with this much bruised charisma. For all her walls, which Everett never lets us believe are anything but shaky and ill-fitting, Sam has an undeniable and magnetic maternal side – not in the sense of literally having kids, whose absence leaves Sam feeling judged by her town’s faith and family milieu, but in caring for others. She is a disarming, unvarnished support for her teenage niece Shannon (Kailey Albus), the person who convinces her father Ed (an excellent Mike Hagerty) to convince her alcoholic mother Mary Jo (Jane Brody) to give rehab a try. When she lashes out at Joel after a particularly painful afternoon at the receiving end of Tricia’s judgments, it only takes a day for her to make amends with self-effacing vulnerability. “I don’t think I’m really friend material,” she says.
Joel disagrees, as do I. Welcoming Sam – wounded and warm, subdued and obnoxious, finally open to new friends – into your life for seven half-hour chapters is a breeze, as natural as Sam’s final command of the karaoke mic.