The new HBO series “Somebody Somewhere” is a comedy in the sense that its episodes are a half-hour long, which as of late seems to be sufficient to be labeled a comedy in the television world. A much more accurate way to describe it would be a half-hour drama that uses humor as a coping mechanism, and to great effect.
Bridgett Everett stars as Sam, 40-something and floundering, who is back in her hometown of Manhattan after more than a decade away with little to show for it. Not the Big Apple, to be clear, but the little one, aka “the eighth biggest town in Kansas.” Drawn back home by the death of her sister Holly six months prior, in whose home she now resides—on the couch, as she cannot bring herself to clear out Holly’s room—Sam remains in Manhattan not because she has a convincing reason to stay so much as because she has no reason to go. She works a mind-numbing job scoring essay questions on standardized tests and wiles away her weekends drinking wine at home alone, not so much living as killing time. And then, one day, a single conversation with a co-worker named Joel (Jeff Hiller) breaks Sam out of the mindless, achingly lonely routine into which her life has fallen. This moment of compassion and human connection has ripple effects that more or less constitute the bulk of the series.
Created by Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen, also credited with writing most of the episodes, “Somebody Somewhere” contains a significant autobiographical component for Everett, herself a Manhattan native. That authenticity shines through in a way that cannot be faked, in the specificity of the world and the characters that makes the series absorbing.
“Somebody Somewhere” is a true masterclass in not just crafting authentic, nuanced characters and building a fully engrossing world, but also naturalistic dialogue. The series makes it seem effortless in the way something expertly made so often does, yet closer inspection reveals the extent of the craftsmanship. Buoyed by stellar performances from the whole cast, the show demonstrates a rare understanding for the value of negative space and how to use it—when something is more effectively communicated through silence than with shoehorned dialogue, and how to shape those silences such that the unsaid is still conveyed with a wonderful degree of specificity.
Everett is remarkable as a woman who hides behind a mask of apathy and witty barbs. She’s hardly the sort to talk about her feelings by choice, but Everett’s performance manages to consistently convey to the audience things that Sam refuses to say or acknowledge with crystal clarity. It’s a subtle and compelling portrait of depression, a sadness that creates an intriguing counterbalance to the bold and bawdy sense of humor for which Everett is known, which also gets plenty of opportunity to shine.
Joel presents an intriguing foil to Sam while also being a fascinating character in his own right, a man whose timid and painfully awkward exterior belies a surprising amount of charm lurking just beneath the surface. His strengths and weaknesses complement Sam’s own to a degree that their friendship, and the way it pushes them both to grow as people, feels fully organic. Of the more peripheral supporting cast, the delightfully theatrical local agriculture professor Dr. Fred Rococo (Murray Hill) is a standout, a member of the merry band of oddballs and misfits Joel brings together over the course of the show. So too is Sam’s father Ed (Mike Hagerty), an affable family man struggling to come to terms with the realization that his aversion to conflict has only enabled his wife’s alcoholism.
Across the board, the characters so endearing that their charm does a great deal to obfuscate the show’s flaws, particularly a mid-season plot that teeters on the edge of overly sparse. Plotlines fade in and out or even disappear entirely. The most befuddling involves Sam’s niece Shannon (Kailey Albus), the teenage daughter of her younger sister Tricia (Mary Catherine Garrison), a proudly judgmental master of the backhanded compliment and passive-aggressive remark.
The pilot indicates a close relationship between Sam and Shannon, so much that Tricia, with whom Sam has a complicated and often tense relationship, accuses Sam of attempting to mold Shannon into a “new Holly.” However, Shannon effectively disappears in subsequent episodes, revealed as a mere inciting incident to introduce the sisterly dynamic, a bald-faced plot device that’s out of step with the subtle elegance of much of the storytelling elsewhere. Joel’s relationship struggles with boyfriend Michael (Jon Hudson Odom) are also oddly sidelined in a way that limits the emotional impact of their arc—we see Michael several times, but mostly just in passing—and feels like a missed opportunity to easily give a character of color something of an arc.
Even with its imperfections, “Somebody Somewhere” is still a gem of a show; it's a disarmingly earnest portrait of loss, loneliness, and disappointment that nonetheless manages to be, above all, a tale of belonging and quiet hope.
“Somebody Somewhere” premieres on HBO at 10:30 pm E.T., January 16. All seven episodes were screened for review.