In the new series “Somebody Somewhere,” Bridget Everett’s character isn’t pleased when her friend Joel (Jeff Hiller), a gay man having a crisis, shares his vision board. “Dream all you want, Joel, but this is the future,” she declares, gesturing at the beige room around her to indicate the world they’re doomed to inhabit. “We’re in our 40s. And it hasn’t happened yet, has it? It hasn’t happened for you, it hasn’t happened for me — and that’s because it’s not going to happen.”
It’s a moment of nihilism on a comedy that finds a way to grace only after establishing pain at its heart. Here, Everett — a Kansas-born stand-up and cabaret artist known for her appearances on “Inside Amy Schumer” — plays Sam, a version of herself had she never been discovered. Sam has a powerful singing voice she almost can’t bear to use; dealing with family and friends, she brings a comic’s bluntness to situations where her loved ones would rather glide over the surface. It’s easier to pretend, as Joel does, that things might someday, somehow get better than to acknowledge how impossible that seems.
But the achievement of “Somebody Somewhere” is how it puts Sam’s cynicism to the test: It suggests that she is also taking the easy way out by indulging a belief that improvement is impossible. Co-created by Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen and executive produced by Jay and Mark Duplass, “Somebody Somewhere” resembles recent TV character studies such as “One Mississippi” and “Baskets.” Both of those shows also found poignancy in contrasting their protagonists’ artistic ambitions with the humble surroundings to which they return.
But Sam’s spikiness, and her struggle to cope with the reality of being herself, makes “Somebody Somewhere” feel fresh. Throughout the series, Sam goes out on a limb for everyone else. She won’t relinquish the memory of her late sister, even as family members prefer to move on. She fights harder for the marriage of her surviving sister Tricia (Mary Catherine Garrison) than either Tricia or her husband (Danny McCarthy) will. She tells hard truths to her father (Mike Hagerty), a farmer who’s grown too infirm to handle his crops, and copes with her mother (Jane Brody), who has an alcohol addiction, and the whole family’s compulsion to ignore it. And Sam, with no small effort, works to build an intentional community, one made up of people — like Joel and Fred Rococo, a soil scientist played by drag king Murray Hill — who appear to have no place in small-town Kansas.
It’s in that last achievement of Sam’s that the show finds its most compelling friction: Her inherent interest in the experience of the outsider comes both from empathy and from a lifetime of standing out. Everett’s performance is tamped down here relative to what those familiar with her act may expect, but her rejection of pretense remains. This makes for a character that some can find a bit tough to take. A wittily drawn element of the series is the aversion Joel’s boyfriend (Jon Hudson Odom) has toward Sam, and his sense of her as a well-meaning ally who’s taken over his relationship. Little wonder that she has: Sam’s freewheeling ability to be herself in most contexts is invigorating to Joel, a man of faith who feels lost at church and in life.
Sam’s conclusion that life’s opportunities have been foreclosed is, in a sad sense, liberating: The mere fact of friends, even ones whose lives she’s clearly at times infringing on, comes as a happy surprise. And given her low expectations for her family, she is rarely disappointed. If nothing else, their shortfalls give her a welcome chance to speak her mind. She’s grimly satisfied by her rut, as if it proves a point. And we only notice something is missing when she sings.
The real-world Everett has a brashly self-confident voice, put to work on exultant songs about seeking and finding pleasure. Here, however, she holds back. In the season’s penultimate episode, after a reckoning with her mother, Sam tries to put something right. Softly and gently, she sings a few verses of the doo-wop standard “Sh-Boom” — “Life could be a dream,” it begins — while sitting at the end of her mother’s bed. The Chords’ 1954 version comes roaring in over the closing credits, as if to emphasize just how much of her gift the otherwise confrontational Sam restrains to protect herself.
Eventually, something shifts. Maybe it’s just the power of being seen for all she is — an occasional annoyance and, more frequently, a pillar of support. Maybe it’s just that the character is loosened up after having some drinks with friends. But, at last, Sam does sing in Everett’s full voice. Even a character who lacks inhibitions when it comes to dealing in frank truths has walls within herself. And “Somebody Somewhere” becomes, over the course of a moving season that doesn’t overstay its welcome, a study in dismantling those walls, and finding what talents — for art, for friendship, for being truly oneself — might flourish in the newly excavated space.
“Somebody Somewhere” will premiere on HBO Sunday, January 16 at 10:30 p.m.