Early in the 3rd episode of Hannah Bos’ and Paul Thureen’s excellent HBO comedy/drama Somebody Somewhere, our protagonist, Sam, played by the always-game Bridget Everett, sees the next-door neighbor Drew, with whom she’s shared a brief flirtation, being cuffed and loaded into the back of a police car. “What did he do?” she asks one of the officers. “Dealing fentanyl,” he plainly replies. “Really?” she says. “Hey, what’s up, Sam?” he says as the car door shuts behind him, never to be seen — or mentioned — again. Cue title card.
The humor in this scene comes from the tonal whiplash. We had only met Drew (Brian King) twice before: first, we get a meet-cute when Sam flusteredly bolts from slumber to stumble out her front door and ask her neighbor to keep down his buzzsaw, only to realize that, not only is it 12:30 in the afternoon, but she isn’t wearing pants. A couple of scenes later, Sam and Drew joke about their previous awkward interaction. Sam is slowly coming out of her shell, opening herself up to the possibility of forming a new relationship. Anyone who has ever seen a rom-com recognizes the narrative work these scenes are supposed to be doing, but Somebody Somewhere isn’t interested in giving us an easy narrative of Sam or her environs.
One year before the events of the series, Sam had returned to her hometown of Manhattan, Kansas, to take care of her ailing sister Holly. When the series begins, her sister is dead, but Sam is still haunting the town, aimlessly throwing back beers after shifts as a standardized test grader. The rest of her family — her emotionally stunted father Rick (Danny McCarthy), her alcoholic mother Mary Jo (Jane Brody), and perfection-driven sister Tricia (Mary Catherine Garrison) — haven’t really processed Holly’s death, either, and keep Sam at a distance. With few friends and few prospects, Sam is a stranger in her home and hometown.
It’s only upon the realization that Joel (Jeff Hiller), a co-worker at the grading center, performed with Sam in their high school show choir, that her fortunes begin to change. She initially rebuffs his invitation to go to church with him, but when she finally accepts, she discovers it is hardly a church in the traditional sense, but rather a group of queers, loving weirdos, and repressed freaks who come together to share their evenings and create music. At long last, Sam has finally found what she has been missing: community. Sam returns throughout the series, rediscovering a love of music that had long gone dormant, and this helps to begin to lift her out of her funk.
Comedy series set in the American heartland that choose to highlight community is hardly a novel approach, but few rural families have felt so well represented by a television program, and few story set-ups have felt so simultaneously bleak yet loving as that of Somebody Somewhere. Indeed, in its spaces of grief and addiction and heartbreaking loneliness, the series is able to wring out its biggest laughs, thanks in no small part to the fact that it centers us in Everett’s real-life hometown. Everett isn’t interested in convincing viewers of Somebody Somewhere that rural Americans are particularly better or worse or even different from urban ones. She refuses to talk down on Kansas or to make it the butt of a joke. Life in America’s so-called “flyover country” is often painted with a broad and simplistic brush. It takes a local to give us a tour of her town to show us her favorite spots, good, bad, ugly, and those that defy classification altogether.
It seems that since the dawn of the medium, television sitcoms have struggled to effectively tell tales of rural residents. Of course, media and entertainment in the United States are largely based in New York and Los Angeles, and often television focuses on people who live on the country’s coasts. However, it wasn’t always this way. As technology proliferated beyond the cities in the 1960s, major networks realized that their audience was shifting, and programming shifted accordingly.
In this era, audiences were broadcast series like The Andy Griffith Show, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Green Acres – series united not just by their wacky hijinks and moralistic conclusions but their lily-white casts. While these shows don’t necessarily depict their characters as smarter or better than their coastal counterparts, they venerated the simplicity of their lifestyles. The social turmoil of the era was neither reflected nor even acknowledged in these depictions — these shows were pure escapist entertainment, apparently oblivious to issues of racial or economic strife.
In the ’70s, the medium shifted yet again, this time back to the cities. Part of this was simply a business decision — Southerners didn’t make up enough of the viewing audience to affect ratings — but there was also a sort of cultural reckoning going on. Whether TV executives mustered up the courage or whether they realized that they were simply missing out on an untapped market — the “radical” idea that non-white people enjoyed television — the theater of the culture war shifted back to stores placed in America’s north, as seen in the prolific success of Norman Lear’s sitcoms including All In The Family, The Jeffersons, Maude, and Good Times. These shows are now considered classics, and for good reason; they brought the medium to a new frontier, demonstrating that a 22-minute comedy could address real, controversial issues head-on and still be funny, and that shows about non-white, and especially Black people, could be commercially viable.
However, there is a major assumption underpinning this shift that largely went unaddressed: for a sitcom to center on non-white people and address the issues of the day, it had to leave the farmhouse and move into an apartment building. The South and the Midwest are still often characterized as “whiter, straighter, and more middle class” than they actually are, a characterization that rears its head every election cycle with seemingly endless profiles of white baby boomers in midwestern diners published in The New York Times. As the sitcom got more comfortable exploring the messy complexities of life on the US coasts, however, assumptions about the rest of the country hardly seemed to evolve past what Andy Griffith depicted.
The sitcoms of the new millennium have done a better job of broadening the scope of what the rest of the country looks like. Greg Daniels’ and Michael Schur’s comedy, Parks and Recreation, features a cast that still ranks among the most racially diverse in recent memory, and the main romantic arc of Schitt’s Creek (Dan and Eugene Levy) is a love story between two men. These are “feel good” shows, though, and are guilty of flattening their characters into recognizable tropes. Parks and Recreation is a relic of the Obama years, focusing on a city government trying to do the best for its residents, if only they were smart enough to realize it.
Schitt’s Creek star and co-creator Dan Levy boasted that he refused to make his characters deal with homophobia, saying at the 2018 Vulture Festival, “If you put something like that out of the equation, you’re saying that doesn’t exist and shouldn’t exist.” Perhaps that’s a noble intention, but the show’s oversimplification of life in rural Indiana and Canada, respectively, still oversimplifies the characters’ environs.
We’re well aware that life in the United States — no matter the location – could be easier for marginalized people, to put it delicately. In smaller cities and towns across the county, wages stagnated, businesses shuttered and factories outsourced – jobs and opportunities went out and despair and opioids came in. These are well-known facts; politicians trot them out when they visit Iowa to beg for votes every four years. It’s a dark reality, and television comedy has struggled with how to acknowledge it. If sitcoms are not being bizarrely condescending to the residents, they often lean into the trope of the estranged, inbred hillbilly, à la The Simpsons’ Cletus Spuckler or 30 Rock’s Kenneth Parcell. These stories are perhaps some kind of coping mechanism for a coastal elite guilt; if we can tell ourselves stories about how people in middle America are uniformly bad and racist and stupid, we can absolve ourselves of our guilt about their social and economic suffering.
While Everett built her career in New York, however, her return to her hometown on Somebody Somewhere paints a beautifully empathetic portrait. Everett isn’t interested in flattery or finger-pointing. She’s interested in making people laugh and cry, once in a while at – but more often with – her hometown’s people and all their absurdities, complications, and realities.
One of the most poignant sequences in the series comes in the second episode, “Knick-Knacks and Doodads”, not long after Sam has begun her friendship with Joel. She’s in a terrible place, racked with grief over the loss of her sister. Joel wants next to nothing, but he wants everything that matters: a house with a nice kitchen, to adopt some kids with his boyfriend, to have a community, to visit Europe, anywhere in Europe. “You wanna do all of this here, in Kansas?” she spits. “Yeah,” he says. “This is where I live.” In a fit of misplaced rage, she cruelly tells him that those things will never happen, “and it’s definitely not going to happen here.”
It’s easy to see why she thinks that — she has come to see her town as a place where only bad things happen, where people stagnate and if they do change, it’s for the worse. She doesn’t view herself as in control of her own story. He reminds her that singing makes her happy, to which she says, “Yeah, singing makes me happy, but it also breaks my heart,” as it reminds her of Holly.
The next time we see Sam, it’ll be when Drew is loaded into the back of a cop car. We’ll see her sing more as the series progress, we’ll see her fight with and care for her mom as she deals with alcoholism, we’ll see her support her other sister through her faltering marriage, we’ll see her laugh – but we’ll never see her or her life, or her home town, as the butt of a joke.