Kansan stars in new HBO series set in The Sunflower State

·4 min read
Courtesy of HBO

You’ve probably never seen a Kansas story quite like this one.

In the new HBO show “Somebody Somewhere,” which premieres at 9:30 Central tonight, Bridget Everett plays Sam, an aimless, 40-something woman who recently moved back to her hometown.

More than a year after the move, Sam is a mess, still grieving the death of her older sister and working a depressing job for a testing company. The only bright spot is her co-worker Joel (Jeff Hiller), a fellow member of her high school show choir. Sam may have spent the last couple decades tending bar in Lawrence, but in Joel’s eyes she’s a star.

Doing right by the Midwest

The new series is a homecoming of sorts for Everett, who is from Manhattan and still has family there. Co-creators Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen also grew up in the Midwest, and all three wanted to tell a story that felt authentic to their experience.

“As Midwesterners, I think we’re used to being the butt of the joke, and to not have the creators on the side of the characters,” Bos said.

One scene that particularly resonates is an argument between Sam and Joel about his likelihood of achieving his dreams in Kansas. When Joel says, “We deserve to be happy,” it almost feels as though he’s speaking directly to every single disaffected person in the entire state.

Originally set in Emporia, the setting switched to Manhattan after the group made a trip to Kansas. Bos remembers how everyone quieted down during their drive through the Flint Hills, “this prairie that’s rolling but flat.”

The series does poke gentle fun at its environment occasionally: the multitude of churches on a single city block, the number of blue trucks in the supermarket lot, even the local “famous chainsaw artist.” But these all feel true, too.

One thing that’s slightly off: Kansans may notice that most of “Somebody Somewhere” was not actually filmed around here.

“We did the best we could on a small budget in Illinois to make it feel like Kansas,” Everett said, including stipulating that they needed some limestone buildings. She confessed that she was nervous about friends and family accusing her of getting it wrong.

“It’s scary to write about your hometown,” Bos said.

A Kansas cast of characters

The relationship between Sam and Joel could carry an entire series on its own, but “Somebody Somewhere” also teems with subplots: an alcoholic parent, the difficulty of running a small farm, adult sibling rivalry, a spiritual crisis, infidelity — even a low-stakes window-decorating competition between local gift shops. And then there’s the agony of high-school drama that never seems to die.

These are somehow sandwiched into seven short episodes, and the plot points are handled deftly by a cast of characters who make the series feel that it’s set in Kansas. Perhaps the most authentic is Sam’s father, Ed (Mike Hagerty), who looks as though he’s spent his entire life in a wheat field.

Thureen said a scene in which Ed has a terse exchange with a neighbor reminds him of how his own father talks to his friends. But the monosyllabic conversation soon goes off the rails when Ed tries to cover up some family troubles.

“We all savor things that are grounded and real, but also sometimes bonkers,” Bos said. “But in a way that comes from a real place.”

From stage to screen

Everett made a name for herself in New York as a comedic, fearless cabaret artist before breaking into TV and film roles. She brings the same propulsive energy of her live performances to the numbers in “Somebody Somewhere.”

These are wisely incorporated into the plot of the series: Joel introduces Sam to Choir Practice, an underground cabaret night held in the sanctuary of a church located in a partially vacant shopping mall. Murray Hill is Fred Rococo, Choir Practice emcee by night, professor of agriculture by day. In this unlikely setting, Sam begins to shift out of her isolation and grief.

As Everett said in a recent appearance on “The Tonight Show” that the series “is about finding your community and finding your people and finding the things that are going to bring you back to life.”

No one finds success on their own, and “Somebody Somewhere” makes this explicit. Over seven episodes, we find out what happens when creative talent is celebrated, even in middle age — and even in Kansas.

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