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Jeff Hiller's Breakthrough Year Ran the Gamut from Queer Empathy to Queer Terror

On Somebody Somewhere and American Horror Story: NYC, the sketch comedian played two vastly different gay men.
  • Jeff Hiller on Somebody Somewhere and American Horror Story: NYC Photos: HBO, FX (Primetimer graphic)
    Jeff Hiller on Somebody Somewhere and American Horror Story: NYC Photos: HBO, FX (Primetimer graphic)

    In our year-end miniseries They Have the RangePrimetimer writers and editors highlight the most versatile TV actors of 2022. 

    As TV shows increasingly clear the rather low bar we've set for LGBTQ+ inclusion, our expectations for the types of queer characters we see on screen continue to grow. There is no one way to be gay in real life, and it's only fair that that should be reflected on TV as well. Which is why it was so thrilling to watch the sheer expanse of queer terrain that Jeff Hiller covered in his two most notable performances: as Joel, the small-town Kansas church minister on Somebody Somewhere and as Mr. Whitely, the terrifyingly baroque serial killer on the latest season of Ryan Murphy's American Horror Story. Trying to find common ground for these characters is satisfyingly hard to do, but there's something to be said for the way Hiller imbues in them a kind of gay alienation that is both era-appropriate for each show and also somewhat timeless.

    Somebody Somewhere’s Joel is such a refreshing character, you might as well put a sprig of mint on him as a garnish. We meet him in the context of Sam's (Bridget Everett) soul-deflating 9-to-5 job at a standardized testing company. He's so unassuming that Sam doesn't remember that they not only went to high school together but they were in show choir together. So, yes, Joel is a wallflower, but it also takes the audience about three seconds to see that there is an inner light to this guy that Sam is going to gravitate toward. He smiles so easily and warmly, and best of all, he gets Sam's often harsh sense of humor, which not many people in their Kansas town do.

    Sam and Joel's friendship is the backbone of a show that covers quite a lot of territory. Sam's dealing with her grief over her dead sister and the frustrations of being left with the family members who don't get her. There are tangents about her alcoholic mother and unfaithful brother-in-law. Joel is Sam's support system through most of this, but one of the great things about Somebody Somewhere is the way it lets Joel's character have his own yearnings and concerns. A lesser show would have shown Joel unlucky in love and hating his life as a gay man in the Midwest. Joel gets to be so much more with that — he helps organize a queer performance space in the church; he longs to own a Vitamix and start a family with his boyfriend — and it's a joy to watch Hiller take that ball and run with it. It's not hyperbole to say it's thrilling to watch the show focus on Joel's devotion to his faith as it bumps up against the ways his church does and doesn't accommodate who he is. These stories, which resonate with so many queer people, just aren't being told much on TV, and watching Hiller, a character actor with roots in the New York comedy scene, finally get to play such a three-dimensional role is genuinely moving.

    The latest season of Ryan Murphy's American Horror Story was never going to provide Jeff Hiller with the space to explore the sweet and sensitive hopes and dreams of a small town queer man. That's not the assignment. What Hiller does as the terrifying serial killer in American Horror Story: NYC is a universe away from sweet Joel, but it gives him the opportunity to spread his wings in a completely different way. Set in 1980s New York City in the days before the AIDS crisis became known, AHS: NYC is heavy on dread. Amid Murphy's genre pastiches and unsubtle nods to movies and plays like Cruising and The Normal Heart, the show is raging out in all directions from inside a community that was just beginning to be ravaged by a plague, the effects of which would be exacerbated by the neglect and hostility of the straight world around them.

    Hiller gets to work within the template of the surgical killer. You know the type: hits you with a hypodermic needle at the club, and next thing you know you wake up strapped down to a slab, and he's powering up the bone saw. It's terrifying stuff, and it's all the more thrilling to watch an actor like Hiller — who mere months before was the sweetest, most empathetic man who's ever graced your TV screen — drain all the compassion out of his being to play this pitiless killer.

    Murphy is fond of a character who's an avatar for the pent-up rage, hostility, and/or terror of a moment in history, and Hiller's Mr. Whitely is definitely that. He even gets to monologue about his motivations, telling two of his victims that his killings are his way of lashing out at what he sees as the fraudulent notions of Gay Pride. It's hatred directed inward and rage directed outward that has made this monster. Does that fully track with the themes of the season? Maybe! Imperfectly, at best! But Jeff Hiller sells the hell out of it. At the very least, he seems to be enjoying his breakthrough year as much as we have.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Jeff Hiller, American Horror Story: NYC, Somebody Somewhere, Bridget Everett, Ryan Murphy