We are made for relationship. We are born into relationships. We seek relationships and struggle with relationships. We are disappointed by relationships, surprised by relationships, and ultimately find fulfillment in relationships. And it’s this relational web that shines in the exceptional, observant, and sometimes bawdy HBO dramedy Somebody, Somewhere.
Somebody, Somewhere explores themes of family, community, friendship, and, impressively, faith, all through the lens of relationship. It also lingers with an unironic gaze upon life in Kansas in ways pleasantly reminiscent of Alexander Payne’s Nebraska. Add to this stand-out performances by Bridget Everett and Jeff Hiller that stretch from laugh-out-loud funny to touchingly vulnerable in a series that cares most about the ways people find to get through the weeds and thorns of life together, and you have something promising in today’s barrage of new shows.
At the heart of the series are Sam and Joel, two middle-aged adults who unexpectedly find friendship. Sam returned to her hometown to care for her terminally ill sister, Holly. Months after Holly’s death, Sam finds herself adrift in life. Anyone who has been a primary caregiver for a loved one knows the huge hole this loss creates.
Joel, on the other hand, is a supervisor at a local company with friends, a partner, and a set routine. Sam finds herself working at the company where Joel works and is surprised he knows her from high school. Joel, who was a self-conscious gay teenager, idolized Sam because of her talent as a singer and performer. Their journey to friendship is not easy, and the brave writing refuses to let the characters and their life situations be superficial.
When Sam and Joel begin to interact, they find ways to laugh amid their challenges, and it lifts the weight. They also connect over their love of music. Never giving into the temptation of creating a “musical” atmosphere, the series instead allows the singing and songs to be live and unpolished. Sam and Joel use music to communicate on a deeper level, and each song has the potential to stir tears of laughter or empathy.
In fact, the music is a gateway into the most surprising aspect of the series: religion. Not just religion, but church. Joel volunteers in numerous church outreach programs, helps bless animals on the feast of St. Francis, and hosts a “choir practice” at his church that is actually more of a clandestine fellowship gathering with drinking, dancing, and live music. In fact, what the word church means to these characters is a subject of continued reevaluation.
Church isn’t something that can be let go of easily, nor something that lets go of you easily. It offers Joel comfort, community, and purpose but can also alienate him and his LGBTQ friends. The fact that he can convince everyone to come to his church for “choir practice,” even though they’re not religious people, is impressive. It’s in this church, in front of a giant cross, that Joel coaxes Sam to join him in singing Peter Gabriel’s powerful ballad “Don’t Give Up.” With Sam feeling lost and alone, even struggling to sing, Joel’s heartfelt delivery of the line “don’t give up, ’cause you have friends” not only takes Sam by surprise with the truth behind his words but also subtly reminds the viewer that grace is possible and comes through relationship.
This perhaps is all the more impressive in a show that can be terribly vulgar. However, even in these instances church still factors into the characters’ reasoning. When Sam’s sister Tricia ponders marketing a pillow she made when angry with a friend who betrayed her, she feels conflicted. The pillow becomes a hit on social media because it has a crude insult written across it, and Tricia says, “I can’t sell these . . . what would people at church think?”
For people who have studied theology or have been immersed in parish ministry, watching these characters name what church means to them is fascinating. The characters are not interested in the conceptual but instead name deep experiential ties that connect them to church.
At one point, when Joel steps away from his church and clearly feels its absence, Sam takes him to various churches to see if he can find the right place, without success. Later, as Sam, Joel, and a group of friends are out laughing and having a good time together, Sam says to Joel, “This is church.” Another character offers Joel the observation: “I believe the whole point is, church is where you go to when you’re confused.”
Ecclesiologists and liturgists could parse out some of the limitations in these definitions, but the characters identify some salient aspects of church. Church is not just “me and God” but a gathered community. A community that cares for and supports one another, especially in difficult times.
Likewise, church is not just one more demand placed upon us in a long list of weekly responsibilities. Church is a place where we can “be still” and just be, knowing that God is in the being. It’s a place for folks who know it’s okay to be confused and are open to the possibility of grace. At its best church is a place where we can be vulnerable and accepted. These are the values Somebody, Somewhere lifts up through church, community, and especially friendship.
In an interview on NPR, Rachel Martin spoke with Jeff Hiller, who plays Joel in the series. She remarked with surprise how religion is woven into the show without harshness or ridicule. Subtle things impress, such as a beautiful scene at a church funeral or Sam learning to sing “Ave Maria” for a nonreligious wedding. Somebody, Somewhere is a series that is constantly asking its characters to go deeper in order to build better relationships. It doesn’t always work, but it’s worth the effort.
For more Culture in Context:
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- Recent films highlight the weirdness of Catholicism
- Bluey invites grown-ups to delight in the ordinary
This article also appears in the October 2023 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 88, No. 10, pages 36-37). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Image: Sandy Morris/HBO