February 28, 2022

Television

Hit the right note: ‘Somebody Somewhere’

By Craig Mathieson
Image of Bridget Everett as Sam in ‘Somebody Somewhere’. Image courtesy HBO/Binge

Bridget Everett as Sam in Somebody Somewhere. Image courtesy HBO/Binge

A distinctive comedy about grief, friendship and the joy of singing leads this month’s streaming highlights

Chickens, an old tractor, a quaint rural diner. The establishing shots in Somebody Somewhere (Binge) suggest a clichéd middle America, but as this warmly idiosyncratic comedy unfolds it avoids the obvious. The characters that populate this HBO series, particularly the unfulfilled protagonist, Sam (Bridget Everett), are defined by the place they’ve found in the world, and the compromises that have been required. Sam, who came home to the college town of Manhattan, Kansas, to care for her ailing sister and is still there grieving a year after her sibling passed, has relegated herself to the periphery of her own life, with a casual job, no friends and a fractious family dynamic. When a work colleague and high school acquaintance, Joel (Jeff Hiller), persuades her to attend “choir practice”, an unofficial gig and social mixer for the local LGBTIQ community he runs at his local church, Sam sings the lead on Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up”.

If that sounds a touch too obvious, Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen’s show stays one step ahead of your expectations. The budding friendship between Sam and Joel feels authentic – they make silly jokes, forgive each other’s failings and just hang out. And when you expect a redemptive step forward for Sam, complete with a show-stopping performance (Everett is an established cabaret star who inhabits every song Sam performs), there’s a sobering reminder that trying to improve your life opens you up to the insecurity and even trauma that has previously been walled off. “You guys will know it,” Sam tells the choir practice band before launching into a Janis Joplin standard, but as much as Somebody Somewhere resembles a slew of other emotional self-improvement comedies, such as Ricky Gervais’ After Life, it has a sense of detail and empathy that casually make it stand out.

Aside from some shenanigans involving the marriage of Sam’s sister that grow more serious, there’s not a great deal of story momentum at work here. But at nearly every turn the conventions of the observational half-hour comedy are quietly inverted. The series includes the kind of body shapes that television usually ignores for lead roles, but it never dwells on this fact. It also never looks down on the nominally conservative setting, allowing Joel to be a committed Christian and a gay man who is aware of the contradictions that entails and is willing to carry them. “This is still where I find comfort,” he says of his church, a line the show treats as both a heartfelt admission and a neat set-up (“that’s called Stockholm syndrome,” a doubting friend replies). Pulling off that simultaneous flourish – a confession that can carry a punchline – is what Somebody Somewhere does so well. The laughs here are both challenging and comforting.

Inventing Anna (Netflix), a scripted retelling of how prodigious Russian-born con artist Anna Sorokin brazenly infiltrated New York society before her arrest and imprisonment in 2019, is rife with acts of deception. Julia Garner’s Anna, complete with a polyglot accent, is a master of cultural impersonation and intimidation so enamoured of her own performance that she can’t relinquish it – even when she’s behind bars and sparring with magazine journalist Vivian Kent (Anna Chlumsky). The narrative is studded with people playing roles or pining to be different, and creator Shonda Rhimes (Scandal, Bridgerton) takes the time to examine their failings and contradictions. How do Anna’s lies, ultimately in pursuit of seeking finance to start an exclusive members’ club, differ from that of the boy-wonder start-up CEO with outlandish projections? The ultimate subterfuge here is that Inventing Anna is not frothy fun. It’s an involved, psychologically wrought drama.

Given Disney’s historic catalogue of animated classics, there is no shortage of unexpected objects being given distinctive voice on Disney+. But the limited series Pam & Tommy ups the anthropomorphic stakes: in the second episode, love-struck rock star Tommy Lee (Sebastian Stan) has a lengthy debate with his doubting penis (voiced by comic Jason Mantzoukas) about embracing monogamy. The full-frontal scene, like this biographical drama, is ludicrous but fitting. In telling the story of how the sexual home movies of Lee and his new wife, Baywatch siren Pamela Anderson (Lily James), were stolen in 1995 and ended up being monetised on the nascent internet, this drily absurd biographical drama overflows with excess. Careening camera moves, porn-industry goombahs and bizarre circumstances abound. The show wants to be both lurid and learned, revelling in escapades but also emphasising the era’s double standard that judged Anderson but not Lee.

In brief: Julian Fellowes takes Downton Abbey across the Atlantic for The Gilded Age (Paramount+), an upstairs-downstairs society saga set in 1882 New York City as new money confronts the established social order. It is brisk and slight, with several key roles miscast. All of Us Are Dead (Netflix) is a zombie-apocalypse thriller set in a South Korean high school that can’t build anything substantial beyond the scenes of desperate survival as the undead swarm the hallways and classrooms. The action-laden Reacher (Amazon), an adaptation of Lee Child’s popular crime novel franchise, lacks B-movie energy and a genuine sense of place, making do with an anodyne depiction of a town in rural Georgia. But in the title role, as a former US soldier with an unyielding moral code and many muscles, Alan Ritchson looks the oversized part and has more fun with the alpha male act than Tom Cruise ever did in the Jack Reacher movies.

Craig Mathieson

Craig Mathieson is a television critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, an author, and the creator of the Binge-r streaming newsletter.

@CMscreens

From the front page

Image of Heraclitus of Ephesus, known as the “Weeping Philosopher”.

Forecasting the future

What is humanity’s destiny in the Anthropocene era?

Frank Moorhouse, Ewenton Street, Balmain, circa 1975

Frank recollections

Remembering Frank Moorhouse (1938–2022)

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

What the James Webb Space Telescope reveals

Why NASA’s new telescope is a huge step forward for understanding the universe

Demonstrating for reproductive rights at Hyde Park, Sydney, June 9, 2019

The fight to choose

As Roe v Wade is overturned in the United States, what are the threats to accessing abortion in Australia?

Online exclusives

Image of Heraclitus of Ephesus, known as the “Weeping Philosopher”.

Forecasting the future

What is humanity’s destiny in the Anthropocene era?

Image of Moonage Daydream director Brett Morgen. Photograph © Olivier Vigerie / Neon

Daydream believer: Director Brett Morgen

Morgen’s freeform documentary about David Bowie, ‘Moonage Daydream’, explores the philosophy and creativity of one of popular music’s icons

Image of Chris Kenny appearing in Your ABC Exposed. Image via YouTube

Indecent exposure

Sky News’s ‘Your ABC Exposed’ reveals more about Chris Kenny and co than it does about the national broadcaster

Image of Loren O’Keeffe, the founder of Missing Persons Advocacy Network. Image © Paul Jeffers

The complicated grief when a family member goes missing

As National Missing Persons Week begins, the founder of an advocacy network for families reflects on the ambiguous loss experienced by those left behind