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The Little Apple: “Somebody Somewhere” Season 2 Review

The loosely autobiographical series imagines how the hypersexual alt-cabaret diva-comedian Bridget Everett might have turned out had she never become Bridget Everett.

Sitting in the audience of a children’s voice recital, fortysomething Sam (Bridget Everett) asks her best friend Joel (Jeff Hiller), jokingly but not, “Is that what hope and promise looks like?” She’s the snarker and he’s the giggler—a dynamic established in the first season of HBO’s marvellously understated hangout dramedy “Somebody Somewhere,” but before then, too. Years earlier, Sam and Joel had been in show choir together at their high school in suburban Kansas, where Sam was a promising vocalist. But the two didn’t become friends until adulthood, when Sam moved back home to care for her terminally ill sister, Holly, and happened to find work alongside Joel at a standardized-testing company. (When Sam broke down at the office, mourning her sister’s passing, Joel was the only one to comfort her.) Sam didn’t remember him from their teen-age years despite his six-foot-five gangliness and nearly-as-wide grin. But Joel remembered Sam, and treated her like a star—something she might’ve been, if she’d tried.

The loosely autobiographical series imagines how the hypersexual alt-cabaret diva-comedian Bridget Everett might have turned out had she never become Bridget Everett. (Sam, like Everett, is also from Manhattan, Kansas, but instead of hightailing it to New York like the actor did, Sam moved to the nearby city of Lawrence, where she worked as a bartender, until returning home.) Sam, who is single and childless, attends the student concert to reconnect with her old singing teacher, Darlene (Barbara E. Robertson), with whom she’d taken her last lesson more than two decades ago. Having agreed to perform at the upcoming wedding of another friend, Fred (the drag king Murray Hill), Sam hopes the lessons will help her regain her confidence. But the sessions have the opposite effect, dredging up insecurities from her youth and fears about her wasted potential. When Sam’s teacher suggests that she dwell on a good feeling—“like the first time you fell in love”—a distraught Sam walks out of the room. Later, she confesses to Joel that she’s never been in love, and, when he expresses surprise, she grouses, “Now why would I want to do that to myself?” She’d prefer, she says, to “sit around judging people that choose love and lose.”

Everett is the face—and occasionally the ebullient voice—of “Somebody Somewhere,” but the show’s real draws are the intimate friendship between Sam and Joel, a tug-of-war between her wounded cynicism and his buoyant sincerity, and the red-state setting where queer middle-aged folks like Joel, a gay churchgoer, and Fred, a trans agriculture professor, have carved out pockets for themselves. (Instances of overt homophobia are rare on the show, but an ambient social conservatism does sometimes intrude on the daily lives of the queer characters, who are quick to flip the confusion of normies into their own bemused mirth. The first season derived its poignancy by proving to Sam, who had resigned herself to the black-and-white existence of Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz,” that things—good things, new things, many-colored things—happen in Kansas, too.

Guided by its relaxed plotting, “Somebody Somewhere” is the kind of deceptively simple show where its finely calibrated creative decisions are rendered invisible. Save for the moments when Sam takes the stage to belt (or she and Joel need to rush to the bathroom after an ill-fated encounter with a gastrointestinal terror dubbed “St. Louis sushi”), the series is as low-key as Sam’s uniform of gray T-shirts. There’s something noteworthy, of course, about the show’s centering on a heavier woman of a certain age and its matter-of-fact (if lightly airbrushed) glimpses of ordinary L.G.B.T.Q.+ existence outside the urban centers. But it’s the big-hearted yet clear-eyed naturalism of the series that entices most: Everett and Hiller’s interwoven performances, the smart Midwestern typologies (and challenges thereof), the small surprises of life revealing themselves on a late-night bike ride or through the right song sung at the right time.

The second season, which concluded on Sunday, builds organically on the first, with Sam realistically reverting to her closed-off self after inviting Joel in (and even then, she so recoils from vulnerability that she brushes off her best friend’s declarations of “I love you” with the words “fart noise, fart noise”). Enthralled that the object of his teen-age admiration has become his platonic soul mate, Joel initially doesn’t mind that Sam insists for both of them “N.N.P.: no new people.” He and Sam live like big kids in adult bodies: he moves into her house while renting out his own for some extra cash, and their living situation feels like an extended sleepover—they ignore their own rules limiting their alcohol consumption and text each other gifs from their respective bedrooms.

But their bond is threatened by Joel’s decision to secretly date Darlene’s only other adult student, Brad (Tim Bagley), who performs—loudly, energetically, and in Baroque-era Italian—at the kids’ voice recital. Brad is just as corny as Joel but makes him laugh as much as Sam does. A fellow-churchgoer, Brad also serves as a sounding board for Joel’s uncertainties toward his relationship with the Church—a minor but persistent crisis exacerbated by his imminent responsibilities as the officiant of Fred’s wedding. (For Joel, marriage is a spiritual union as well as a legal one.) Joel had previously lied to his pastor about using church space for “choir practice,” a not-at-all-devout open-mike night that he had hosted for the town misfits. The lie is trivial, but points toward Joel’s ambivalence about sacrificing so much of himself to feel like he belongs among the congregation. It’s not insignificant that, despite the closeness between the friends, Joel never brings up his Church issues with Sam, who would probably just tell him to cut ties and never look back.

Sam’s return home was encumbered not just by Holly’s illness but by her mutually resentful relationship with her other sister, Tricia (Mary Catherine Garrison), a glass of lemon water that thinks it’s lemonade. Fresh off a split from her husband, Tricia bemoans that she’s “not the kind of person who gets divorced.” Her nest newly empty, Tricia scrambles to figure out the next chapter of her life. (Her husband’s affair with her best friend Charity, with whom she had owned a twee gift shop, led to Tricia losing her marriage, business, and closest confidant in one fell swoop.) Tricia’s first instinct is to cyberbully Charity, but with Sam’s foulmouthed help—and the happenstance approval of Amy Sedaris, who promotes one of Tricia’s “Lying Cunt” cursive pillows on Instagram—Tricia discovers that she can be cute and feminine without sanding down her edges. It’s satisfying to see Sam’s bawdiness and Tricia’s basicness—for which each sister had long judged the other—find a joint project in a series of “Cunt”-themed pillows (e.g., “Big Cunt Energy”) Tricia starts to sell online. The sisters’ fleeting moments of compromise also make it easier to coordinate their care for their alcoholic mother (Jane Brody), whose recent stroke lands her in an elder-care facility, from where she is kicked out shortly thereafter for disruptive behavior. Welcome home, where no one feels like they’re wanted.