Editor’s Note: Sara Stewart is a film and culture writer who lives in western Pennsylvania. The views expressed here are solely the author’s own. View more opinion articles on CNN
Please note: Spoilers follow for the season finale of “Somebody Somewhere.”
The best new show about middle America stars New York City’s raunchiest cabaret singer. Anyone have that on your cultural-weirdness bingo card?
Bridget Everett is the lead in HBO’s “Somebody Somewhere,” which concluded its short first season Sunday night. Everett plays Sam, a middle-aged woman who’s moved back to her Kansas hometown, Manhattan, to care for her dying sister. (HBO and CNN share a parent company.)
We meet Sam in the aftermath, sleeping on her late sister’s couch and unsure what to do with the rest of her life. She’s been working a mind-numbing job as a standardized test grader while trying to help keep various family members afloat, including her other, tightly-wound sister (Mary Catherine Garrison), whose husband is cheating, and their alcoholic mother (Jane Brody).
Drifting along with a sort of affable frustration, Sam (who seems to be straight) discovers a community in a queer cabaret called Choir Practice, held in a mall church, where she reignites a long-buried desire to be a singer.
It’s been fascinating to watch Everett emerge onto the mainstream radar. She’s been known to a subset of New Yorkers for many years as one of the city’s best and bawdiest cabaret performers (the most PG-rated of her well-known songs is “T**ties”). As a recent profile put it, “traditionally, she ends the show by picking a man out of the crowd and sitting on his face.”
She’s appeared sporadically on the big and small screen, but except for the failed Amazon Prime pilot “Love You More” in 2017, never as the lead. Here, the show is structured around an alternative version of Everett, who’s actually from the “Little Apple” in real life. It asks: What would have happened if you’d ended up staying here?
The show was produced by the Duplass brothers, who have a solid track record of humane portraits of real people (their earlier HBO show “Togetherness,” 2014’s “The Skeleton Twins”).
“Somebody Somewhere” visits familiar locations in the average-American-town pantheon. There’s a fluorescent-lit office building, a knickknack shop, the local fast-food drive-thru – but the show resists populating them with goofball characters. Sam’s sister runs that shop, and while the camera may linger winkingly on her positive-slogan throw pillows, it also shows her working late into the night hand-sewing sachets for a store event. Their dad is a farm guy, but he’s not a hayseed – the show’s careful to depict the business as a lot of hard work and worry.
It’s not as if the plot about going back to your hometown is exactly novel. But “Somebody Somewhere” never exudes the kind of urban superiority you often see in movies and shows about small towns and city folk trapped in them – nor does it offer lessons, a la every Hallmark Christmas movie, about the redemption that lies in Americana values. Typically, the latter involves a work-obsessed woman discovering the real secret to happiness is quitting your high-powered job, trading your tailored suits for flannels and jeans, and marrying a square-jawed (usually White) man who never left his monoculture, Christmas-obsessed small town.
With her T-shirt-centric wardrobe and penchant for wine-drunk Sundays, Everett’s Sam belongs to an expanding class of female-schlub leads. Her predecessors include the stoner women of “Broad City,” Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s fourth-wall-breaking “Fleabag,” and Lena Dunham’s narcissistic exhibitionist on “Girls.”
At some point, all of those women go home again, too. But in a novel development, Sam’s not completely at odds with her Midwestern hometown surroundings. One of the most surprising things about “Somebody Somewhere” is just how gentle it is, especially compared to Everett’s bawdy, in-your-face style.
You might expect that, given her New York persona, she’d play someone who’s too much for vanilla America. Instead, she meets this Manhattan where it is. She’s a brilliant, subtle performer, her character maintaining a fundamental self-confidence and comfortability even as she marinates in confusion about what, exactly, she wants.
As good as Everett is, Jeff Hiller nearly steals the show from her as the lovely Joel, a co-worker who was once a classmate of Sam’s. He’s an out gay man who’s also a Christian, and such a pillar of the community he does a yearly blessing of the community’s pets. He doesn’t yearn to leave the confines of this Manhattan. He likes it there (though his vision board includes a trip to Paris) and he sees the good in the people around him.
Like Everett, Hiller has spoken about his own roots in red America, telling Vulture, “I had the choice to stay in Texas and be a part of a faith community. I even found one that accepted queer folks and was a really nice place to be. The show feels exactly like that, except I wouldn’t be the person creating the community.”
The show also features comedian Murray Hill, another beloved New York cabaret personality, as Fred Rococo, a soil-science professor and the emcee of Choir Practice. And Mike Hagerty, a character actor who’s been a staple in comedies for decades, gets one of his best-ever roles as Sam’s dad. Hagerty is often called upon to play a kind of central-casting blue-collar guy, but here he blossoms as a man trying to keep a struggling farm afloat and his beloved wife from falling apart under the weight of subsumed grief and alcoholism.
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The show’s been renewed for a second season, with Everett and creators Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen saying they’d love to see it run for 10 or more. Bos, who’s from Evanston, IL, has said she and Thureen kept non-condescension in mind: “I see a lot of stories about the Midwest that are making fun of the Midwest, or there’s a hokey-ness or quirkiness. We wanted to make it as grounded as possible, not making fun of the characters.”
As someone with Midwestern roots – I’ve got family from Manhattan, Kansas, too – I find Everett’s show revolutionary in a very generous way. It’s a nuanced, lived-in portrayal of a community, and even in the glut of TV offerings today, that’s still fairly rare. (Hulu’s “Reservation Dogs” offers a similarly big-hearted rendition of a very different locale, a Native American community in Oklahoma, though without the outsider angle.)
It’s hard to go a day without hearing about our culture war, about the trend of people moving to be closer to people aligned with similar values, and the chasm between small-town and city people. We tend to favor an easy shorthand narrative, especially in media depictions, about urban populations as fundamentally progressive and rural ones as wall-to-wall conservative.
“Somebody Somewhere” opts to, more interestingly, dwell in the gray areas, maintaining, rightly, there are all types of people nearly everywhere. I’m sure there are red-state Americans who wouldn’t be on board with the wide variety of characters portrayed here, but it’s heartening to think there might be more room in the middle than we think – a bridge, as Everett has shown, between the two Manhattans.