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When the 2023 Emmy nominations were announced about a month ago, conspicuously absent from the list of nominees was the HBO series “Somebody Somewhere.” Upon its release in 2022, the show garnered wide acclaim from critics and viewers alike (including a praiseworthy blurb in one of our previous roundups). Its second season, which concluded this past May, seems to have gone comparatively under the radar, which is a shame since it remained as good as ever. Lest fans worry its overlooked status would hobble the show’s ongoing prospects, a third season was in fact announced just days after its latest season finale aired.
It’s a pleasant surprise. For those who have missed it thus far, there is plenty of reason to catch up and take a closer look at “Somebody Somewhere.” In certain respects, it is unlike most anything else on television right now, and it is a compelling case of rural representation done right.
When many people think of HBO, the first thing that likely comes to mind would be prestigious, ambitious series like “The Sopranos,” “Game of Thrones,” or more recently, “Succession,” itself a favorite among this year’s Emmy voters.
“Succession,” while deserving of those accolades, is often held up on one side of a supposed pop cultural binary, as a show that the internet, the media, and “the elites” love, but that not all that many “real people” are actually watching. When the other side of that binary is revealed, with “Yellowstone” as the popular alternative — a show that supposedly foregoes the trends and the buzz but boasts unquestionable ratings success — it becomes clear how this conversation is trading in typical, tired notions of “urban-rural divide.” In pitting hotspots and high-rises versus “the Heartland,” it’s nothing more than a re-packaging of ideas repeatedly put forth in our political discourse.
It’s a little curious, when you consider that “Somebody Somewhere,” a series that showcases middle America as effectively as anything, was airing on HBO’s schedule, right alongside “Succession,” during the entirety of its second season. Their respective finales premiered on the same evening.
In truth, the picture is more complicated than any supposed divide would have you believe, and that mirrors the rich, layered reality that “Somebody Somewhere” is much more interested in capturing.
Let us consider a series that features a family business, frayed sibling and parental relationships, entrepreneurial spirit, loss and grief, loneliness and alienation, and the complex implications of inheritance and carrying what has been left to you. Oh, and it all takes place in Manhattan.
Manhattan, Kansas, that is.
See, if you stop at the surface level, “Succession” and “Somebody Somewhere” appear as different as their two respective Manhattans, having little in common save for a shared cable and streaming home.
But both excel because they recognize the importance of crafting fully-realized characters and rich relationships between them; whether you love them, or love to hate them, you are given the means to understand these people, and see parts of yourself in them. Both series also aim to make you feel at home in their settings, however familiar you are with them and wherever in the world you are watching from. Good stories are good stories, zip code or so-called divides be damned.
These parallels and necessary nuances acknowledged, we can’t deny one significant and simple difference: “Succession” is an impressive production, but it is not especially exceptional in offering a closer look into the worlds of wealth, power, and prestige in America’s signature metropolis. Many other shows, contemporary and classic, have effectively done the same thing. But “Somebody Somewhere” is pretty darn unique in turning our attention to small-town Kansas.
At the end of the day, what I think I love most about “Somebody Somewhere” is that its characters look and sound like people I’ve known throughout my life, particularly family members, friends, and neighbors from the small towns where I grew up.
One could complain that Hollywood and “show biz,” particularly in its modern incarnation, is mired in pretension and vanity, its purveyors and productions obsessed with glitz and glamour but ultimately lacking much perspective on life.
That is hyperbolic I know, a broad and sweeping generalization of the sort we take pains to stamp out when it comes to our rural people and places. But I deploy it here to draw out some important, inescapable truths about “Somebody Somewhere.”
The ensemble cast of “Somebody Somewhere” — an excellent group of actors who deliver fantastic performances, make no mistake — is comprised of people you don’t get to see in this fashion all that often, in every role (leading and supporting), on a high-profile television or film production.
In short, they look like “real people.” Please understand, I am not seeking to make some sort of lazy political statement in using that language. Rather, what I mean to say is these are not people who you’d expect to have a personal chef, a personal trainer, a plastic surgeon, or a regular Botox appointment on their calendar. These are not people you would usually see on a magazine cover or a movie poster.
I hope you see my point.
This isn’t philosophical posturing about artifice and art just for the sake of it. To me, this whole dynamic is essential to the show’s success. There is no room for pretension here. “Somebody Somewhere” displays down-to-earth warmth and sharp insight in equal measure — a mixture befitting many rural and small-town folks I know. It has a humble approach, a candid spirit, and a gentle pace that feels true to life.
For example, there are sometimes pauses in conversation that can feel awkward — more loose and languid than much scripted dialogue tends to be — but it’s in those very spaces where moments of humanity, vulnerability, or growth show themselves later. Likewise, certain character relationships can feel off kilter and strange early on, but it only grants a fuller appreciation of how they bloom over time.
This connection between the real and the scripted is no surprise, considering that “Somebody Somewhere” is said to draw heavily from the Kansas roots and lived experience of Bridget Everett, who stars as the primary protagonist Sam and is an executive producer of the series.
That connection also takes on added meaning as it relates to one key development that occurred between the two seasons of the show. The actor Mike Hagerty, who played Sam’s dad in the first season, unfortunately passed away shortly before the second began filming.
Because season one is oriented so much around Sam’s grieving process related to the loss of an immediate family member, the show elected to avoid walking this same path again and wrote in a different reason for the absence of Sam’s dad during season 2.
Despite that, the second season still manages to deftly work in a number of tributes to Hagerty, which are touching, thoughtful, and feel fitting for both the show’s story and the real-life relationships behind the scenes.
It’s a perfect distillation of this loving portrait of a place and the people who inhabit it. And it rings true, authentic and honest in a way that many other shows on television, good or bad, often fail to match.
This article first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, recommendations, retrospectives, and more. Join the mailing list today to have future editions delivered straight to your inbox.