Review: In ‘Somebody Somewhere,’ Home Is Like No Place

In a certain famous story about Kansas, the protagonist goes on a journey of discovery in a fantastical land, learns something about herself, then returns to a place of comfort by clicking her heels and saying, “There’s no place like home.”

In HBO’s lovely and eccentric “Somebody Somewhere,” which begins Sunday, a Kansas woman with a song in her heart sets out to find her way, not by leaving but by staying. There is a set of colorful companions. There are even, eventually, a tornado and a little dog.

But homecoming, and coming to feel truly at home, is a much more complicated process.

Sam (Bridget Everett) moved back to her hometown to care for her ailing sister Holly, who has since died. A gifted singer who once dreamed of going pro, Sam now spends her nights sleeping on the couch and her days reading essays under fluorescent lights at a test-grading center. As she confesses to her father (Mike Hagerty), one of the few people she feels comfortable with, “I don’t really know where I belong here.”

Sam’s road to finding a new home in her hometown begins when she befriends Joel (Jeff Hiller), a colleague at the test center who, she learns, was in high school show choir with her. (“It’s all good,” he says. “A lot of people don’t remember me.”) When Joel invites her to “Choir Practice” — a semi-sanctioned cabaret soiree that draws gay residents and other free spirits from the community, held after-hours in a mall church — she begins to find her voice and her place, as well as to untangle the hidden mess within her own family.

Set in Everett’s hometown, Manhattan, Kan., “Somebody Somewhere” was created by Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen, who wrote for “High Maintenance,” a high-THC study of oddball Brooklynites. Here, they embrace the sort of far-from the-coast characters you don’t see as often on TV, maybe because they resist caricature.

There are the outsiders and showboats at Choir Practice, which is M.C.’ed by the charismatic Fred Rococo (the comedian and drag king Murray Hill), who heads a university soil-science department by day; farm families like Sam’s, with her even-keeled father and a mother who hides a drinking habit (Jane Brody); and people like Sam and Joel, deep into their 40s and still figuring out what their lives might be. There are religious people and queer people and blue-collar people and creative people, and above all there is the recognition that none of those categories need be mutually exclusive.

Together, they make for a well-observed comedy whose laughs come from performance more than one-liners. The homespun-kooky vibe — a little burlesque, a little Burl Ives — is not what you might expect if you’re familiar with Everett’s raunchy, let-it-all-hang-out stage persona as a singer-comic.

Her performance is restrained and real, as rich and layered as a well-tended soil bed. Sam seethes with long-held anger at her self-pitying mother and her sister Tricia (Mary Catherine Garrison), who had a “love the sinner, hate the sin” attitude toward Holly, who was gay. But Sam is much more diffident and unsure when it comes to facing her future.

The supporting cast is roundly excellent, especially Hiller, who often steals the show. His Joel is like a sweet, middle-aged, gay Richie Cunningham with a wry wit he saves for his friends and a dreamy optimism he pours into his homemade vision board, which the cynical Sam mocks him for. Everett and Hiller have a winning friend-chemistry, and “Somebody Somewhere” is generous enough to let him shine.

The show is generous in spirit, too, even to characters who first seem to be antagonists; Tricia, for instance, begins on a note of church-lady superiority but grows more nuanced and sympathetic. In fact, “Somebody Somewhere” can be generous to a fault, in that Sam’s struggle gets lost at times as other stories in the ensemble are foregrounded.

But I see this broad focus mostly as a strength, giving the season a depth (over a quick seven episodes) that feels as if it could sustain the series for a long run. This is a show made in the spirit of choir, after all. You need to let the voices blend.

And Everett can still be stunning when she solos. There’s not a ton of plot in the season — a small-bore mystery surrounding Tricia’s video game playing doofus husband (Danny McCarthy) provides some scaffolding — but Everett invests the viewer fully as Sam confronts her past. Sometimes looking through your high-school yearbook can be as harrowing as facing a dragon.

When Sam finally takes the stage at Choir Practice, “Somebody Somewhere” reveals itself as something more sweet than bitter. She performs Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up,” a number from her high school choir glory days, and Joel — a shy guy who blooms into a showman onstage behind the keyboard — takes the Kate Bush part of the duet. “Don’t give up,” he sings. “Because somewhere there’s a place where we belong.”

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