Somebody Somewhere’s return proves the HBO comedy is something special

We’re all drowning in content—so it’s time to highlight the best. In her column, published every Friday, critic Clarisse Loughrey recommends a new show to watch. This week: The quietly impressive HBO comedy overflowing with empathy, Somebody Somewhere.

Coming back to Somebody Somewhere, and its second season, feels oddly like coming home. To a town and a people and a batch of memories tucked away somewhere quiet, now brought back and picked through with unfussy tenderness. Very little’s changed about the place, and yet the mind hones in immediately on what’s different. A missing face. A broken relationship.

Creators Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen have bucked HBO’s tendency towards scale and emotional bombast—this is the network of dragons and zombies and the ultra-wealthy, after all—in favour of something far more precious. That such a quiet series has been able to secure its future in today’s landscape, with a third series already on the way, feels borderline miraculous. But Somebody Somewhere really is something special.

We arrive at the series a little like its protagonist, Sam (Bridget Everett), did in season one—drawn back to her home town of Manhattan, Kansas, after years of trying to build a life elsewhere. Sam, however, had little choice. Her sister, Holly, had been diagnosed with cancer. She needed someone to care for her in those final days. Holly died; Sam stayed.

And, now, life goes on. Her other sister, Tricia (Mary Catherine Garrison), has gotten a divorce and shipped her only child, Shannon (Kailey Albus), off to college. Her friend Fred (Murray Hill) is engaged. Her mother, Mary-Jo (Jane Drake Brody) is in care, and her father, Ed (Mike Hagerty, who sadly passed away between seasons), is off on a well-deserved holiday.

Sam’s sorrow has softened into an ache, while her friendship with Joel (Jeff Hiller) has blossomed into its own tiny universe. Last season, the duo connected through a semi-secret choir practice at the local church, which helped reawaken Sam’s old glory days of school performances. Here, she resumes lessons with her old singing teacher Darlene (Barbara Robertson).

Somebody Somewhere doesn’t really do jokes, at least in the traditional sense. You couldn’t point to a single punchline, and there’s never a sense these scenes are being tugged in certain directions because someone in some writer’s room had a bright idea. But, at the same time, Somebody Somewhere is funny. Really funny, in the specific way that the non-professional comedians in your life can still make you laugh until your face is blue. We feel so invited into the lives of Sam and her friends that we learn to speak their language. When they struggle to keep a straight face during a mildly cringeworthy public performance, their borderline hysteria is infectious.

Everett, a stage comedian known for her foul-mouthed, raucous performances, slices that image up with a little repressed tragedy. Sam is upfront and outspoken in a way that’s made her a perpetual misfit in Manhattan. Perhaps it’s not in the obvious ways—Bos and Thureen’s series takes place in a world where everyone is too kind to be cruel—but Sam becomes perturbed when those around her start to settle more comfortably into their own lives and seek out love, something that feels totally beyond her own grasp.

It’s an offhand comment from her sister—”you’re so used to being alone”—that bruises the most. Sam has always been alone, she knows that. But there are occasions in our lives when we’re suddenly wrenched violently out of our own bodies and forced to look dead-on at the wasteland we’ve made of our own existences. It’s frightening. But Somebody Somewhere, overflowing with empathy, still lets Sam clamber slowly towards something that resembles happiness.