The following contains spoilers for Somebody Somewhere S1E1, “BFD” (written by Hannah Bos & Paul Thureen and directed by Jay Duplass)
Somebody Somewhere is billed as inspired by the life of its star, Bridget Everett, but I don’t know to what extent that’s true. I mean I literally don’t know, I’m not an expert on Everett’s life or anything like that, but my initial impression is that though the show is set in Manhattan, Kansas, where Everett is from, and she plays Sam, the main character (as well as being an executive producer), we shouldn’t expect any kind of one to one mapping of her story onto Sam’s.
Everett went to that other Manhattan years ago and is an incredibly successful performer, but I don’t get the impression that this is what success looks like for Sam. She’s still in Kansas as she approaches late middle age, or she left her hometown for some time but is back now, though it’s not clear how far away she ever really was in spirit.
Sam works at a standardized testing center. It’s the kind of job that both seems important and terribly boring, but which you could also question the importance of as you go through the day to day grind. The person grading essays might be that annoying guy everyone hates who is definitely going to get fired. But in the meantime, his decisions have a real impact on the lives of the young people whose work passes through his hands, and through his judgment.
This would seem to be something of the theme Somebody Somewhere is beginning to explore in its premiere episode: the question of the judgment of others and its legitimacy or lack thereof. We might wonder whether and to what extent one can or should be free to determine oneself as one pleases despite it. Is it a problem to dye the tips of your hair pink as yearbook photos loom, or do that for your niece? Do you dare to be like Irma (Meighan Gerachis) and sing a song because you want to sing, without worry about whether you’re any good at it or not? Or are you inclined to demur precisely because you’re good at it, like Sam? Can we escape not just actual, but virtual disapprobation?
This is clearly what Joel’s choir practice offers—a space for all of these weirdos to simply be themselves, free of judgment and ideas about loving the sinner but hating the sin, as though there could be some neat separation. We don’t know about the sexuality or even gender identity of all those who gather for this event, but that’s not to the point anyway.
Choir practice is a celebration of the queer in the oldest and broadest sense, which is of course also the sense in which the term has been used pejoratively, or as a slur—the strange, the odd, the different, those who don’t fit in. Joel (Jeff Hiller) is the kind of guy a lot of people don’t remember, but it’s empowering to see him having embraced that. And surely everyone immediately loves Fred Rococo (Murray Hill), even as his whole being challenges neat boxes of categorization.
The normal is a value judgement that hides itself in the veneer of factual description, but it’s not generally based on a statistical average, or even empirical observation so much as a position about how one should or should not be, with those who deviate precisely labeled deviants. Hate the sin but love the sinner, hoping they stop being a sinner, divorcing action from being as though neatly, as if who I am can be so cleanly separated from what I do and what I value doing.
There is something very Midwestern about this—baldly asserting something to be an unquestionable reality when in fact it’s a construct of values not open to question, though I don’t mean it’s put forthrightly. Rather, it can be as though the very space where questions might arise is closed down, foreclosed such that there is no opening where doubt might seep in. And thus it can be presented with all of the façade of politeness and decorum.
We see it in Sam’s exchange with Tricia (Mary Catherine Garrison) in the basement, and not just in her line about hating the sin but her whole thing about the hair dye and how the one connects to the other in her mind. It’s a value placed on the normal that refuses to recognize that the normal is based on a certain perception of value. And it’s from this point of view that all of these terms like queer, deviant, abnormal, etc., take on a negative connotation. But it’s also why they can be reclaimed.
Kayleigh’s written a book (if you can call it that) titled Showgirls because it’s about the lives of high school girls in the show choir. The whole thing displays her daftness in more ways than one, but it doesn’t stop the Sampire nickname from stinging. It is sort of built into the human condition that we care what others think of us, whether we like it or not. We don’t even meet Kayleigh in Somebody Somewhere S1E1, just see her effects on Sam, even as she tries to shrug off being mentioned in the memoir. She can’t fully escape the feeling of an acquaintance’s judgment. Hell is other people.
But then so too is heaven, like the friend who invites you to choir practice and makes you get on stage to sing a Peter Gabriel song again, which provides a chance for him through the duet to tell you not to give up. Somewhere there’s a place where we belong.
It’s actually fitting that this is in a church.
With its premiere episode, Somebody Somewhere establishes a tone that encourages us not to give up either, and to believe—in the face of hypocritical twits and judgmental relatives—that there are those who will embrace us in all our peculiarity and love us, “sins” and all.