Television

The HBO Hit That Gets Something About Small-Town Life Every Other Show Misses

There’s no savvy sneering at rural simplicity, just a sense that community is where you find it.

Bridget Everett on Somebody Somewhere.
Bridget Everett on Somebody Somewhere.  Elizabeth Sisson/HBO

When a show is set in surroundings other than New York, or Los Angeles, or Chicago—somewhere anti-cosmopolitan but still specific—parody can be easier than earnestness. The camera lens frequently acquires a quirky or condescending glaze, such that its depictions of landscapes or local landmarks come to operate like inside jokes, aimed at knowing urban viewers to whom such things are alien and amusing. Townspeople too are easily flattened into ever-so-slight grotesques, caricatures whose basic tastes or stultifying standards of normalcy are meant to be detected and mocked by the cosmopolitan viewer.

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Sendups of small-town Americana are hard to resist, and nowhere are jokes of this kind more obviously set up than in Bridget Everett’s latest vehicle, Somebody Somewhere, a comedy set in Everett’s actual hometown of Manhattan (get it?), Kansas—a state forever haunted by its main cinematic referent, The Wizard of Oz. But the punchline never comes. The ingredients for irony are all there: the establishing shots of cornfields, the grim and featureless Excellence Standard Test Grading Center where our heroine, Sam (Everett), grades the essay portions of standardized tests in a room so sloggy and nondescript it makes Office Space seem vibrant. There are cues that this show about a midlife crisis and grief will be about a depressed place in a depressed Midwest with depressed people doing thankless, meaningless work—and the stultifying anonymity of a workplace where people are paid to be cogs grading a generation of cogs-to-be.

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Instead, something surprising happens. Shortly after we’ve met Sam and her workplace in the pilot, she starts weeping, openly, at her seat. Her fellow graders try to ignore it, then start to stare. She exits to compose herself and when a gentle co-worker named Joel (played by the magnificent Jeff Hiller) goes out to check on her, Sam says—to his surprise, ours, and hers also—that she was deeply moved by an essay she’d been grading. Moved by the essay portion of a standardized test? If you’re like me, you might find yourself thinking wait, what’s happening as you grope for the expected irony.

It’s not there. Sam explains: The essay was about a girl “teaching her little sister how to take the training wheels off her bike.” A puzzled but game Joel observes that some of the essays are indeed very good. Sam corrects him: The essay was pretty mediocre. But it didn’t matter. It got to her anyway. She tells Joel, who she thinks is a stranger, that she lost her sister six months ago and is still recovering. “I know,” Joel says. “I’m so sorry about Holly. She was a few years ahead of us, right?”

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It’s an astonishingly concise little scene that blossoms with the surprising possibility of connection and intimacy in an extremely unpropitious setting. And it efficiently reconfigures our expectations of a genre whose tropes we may have thought we were reading fluently. That doesn’t mean her work satisfies her—the job is plainly terrible—but the incident indexes her as capable of transcending the depressing frame we thought she was stuck in (and were preparing to root for her to escape). Sam is a live agent in this landscape; she may be grieving her sister’s death, but she’s also fully capable of finding a spark and feeling it. If this sounds cheesy, it isn’t: Sam is so strikingly unsentimental that her journey can’t be cloying. She’s blunt and clear, and if she is moved to weep over a mediocre text, she can also fully recognize its mediocrity. She is not someone we can sneer at, in short. She is every bit as aware as we are.

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I say “despite appearances” because Sam herself is a study in anti-glamor whose type could easily stray into the broad comedy of Melissa McCarthy–dom or play an extra on Parks and Rec. She wears T-shirts and hoodies, no makeup, and her hair is what hair looks like when you shower and brush it and let it dry: clean but unambitious in ways that might remind millions of Americans of women they know who dress and move in exactly this way. She’s an everywoman, and not the kind who usually anchors TV shows—not since Roseanne, anyway. Everett has what John Goodman has: the ability to channel an easygoing Midwestern type with zero condescension and astronomical charisma that comes out precisely when you’re expecting just another story about abjection. She messes up a fair bit, she’s awkward, she’s dogged but unsure. But when she finally sings, she becomes extraordinary—imbued with the kind of force Everett is known for as a performer.

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What I’m trying to nail down here is how carefully Somebody Somewhere avoids caricature and other familiar comedic terrain. Because here’s the thing about stories featuring a self-aware protagonist coming home to a place where they don’t quite fit: Their awkwardness is usually a function of how they’ve “outgrown” home by moving away. Typically they’ve moved a few notches closer to the cosmopolitan viewer’s sensibility, which lets them act as a “fish out of water” point of view character for the audience. (This frees the latter up to laugh guilt-free at regional oddities; they’re aligned with the hero whose contempt for the place they can share.) Typically, this kind of protagonist is trying to negotiate the double vision they’re now blessed and cursed with as people conversant in two different realities, one of which includes their weird family.

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That’s roughly the frame of Tig Notaro’s terrific One Mississippi, for example, in which a comedian also returns to her hometown to mourn a relative’s death and come to grips with where they came from. But Notaro’s character is alienated from her family and the South—and confident in her new place in the world—in ways Everett’s isn’t. Yes, Sam has been away for 10–15 years, but she was living barely two hours away in Lawrence (a college town but hardly a cosmopolitan hub), where she worked as a bartender. She didn’t blossom into a sophisticate or become a success, nor does she really seem to have rejected her background. She dresses like her alcoholic mom and shoots like her depressed and shut-down dad. The only real value she’s absorbed from the outside world is that home is hopeless. She mocks Joel for a vision board he keeps with his hopes and dreams for the future, pointing out that none of the things he wants will ever happen “here.” Sam came back to nurse her ailing sister until she died and lives in limbo now, haunting her sister’s house but sleeping on a sagging couch since she can’t occupy her bed. She’s sad and she’s stuck, but her problem isn’t that she doesn’t fully belong to her family or her hometown now; it’s that, despite her best (and unironic) efforts, she never did.

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Everett plays Sam with the slight hunch of someone who stubbornly believes in herself and maintains her own distinct perspective on things even if she understands that the world sees her differently. It’s a joy, therefore, to watch her unfurl under Joel’s obvious and extreme admiration for her in the scene above. (He idolized her in high school and speaks earnestly about how much it meant to him to watch her sing in show choir—basically, he sees her as she wishes to be seen.) Sam, who can sing, has long been a would-be performer without an audience. He eagerly supplies her with one. It’s a very beautiful thing to watch happen and Hiller is the standout MVP of the series. The point he makes is clear, unintuitive, and the finale drives it home with an obvious reference to Dorothy’s “there’s no place like home” in The Wizard of Oz: Home, even if it’s in a tiny town in the Midwest, can be a place where you find hope, and community, and genuine, meaningful connection. This is a story about homecoming that refuses to settle for parody or jokes about regression and stasis, or turn the Midwest into a satire of itself. Even Sam’s homophobic sister is capable of improvement. Somebody Somewhere is, despite some depressive trappings, a shockingly optimistic series whose small but frankly rather revolutionary thesis is that you can not only go home again but find a way to actually belong.

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