There’s a coming out scene in the first season finale of Somebody Somewhere, but it doesn’t involve being gay.
When we meet Joel (Jeff Hiller) in the HBO show's pilot episode, he’s already out of the closet. He’s so out, in fact, that he hosts a regular event called Choir Practice, where anyone from his local Kansas community can sing, perform, or let their freak flag fly.
But the name “Choir Practice” points to Joel’s secret. He calls it that because he hosts the party in his church, and he doesn’t want his pastor to know what he’s actually doing when he signs out the room. “Joel’s relationship to Choir Practice happening inside his church is what he’s struggling with,” says Hannah Bos, who co-created the series with her long-time collaborator Paul Thureen. “He’s creating this space for expression and art, but by doing it secretly, he’s going against his morals. That’s his spiritual struggle.”
It’s hard to think of another series that takes a queer character’s spirituality so seriously. When it’s mentioned at all, religion on television – and especially on a prestige network like HBO – is typically something to be mocked or mistrusted, especially when it comes to the LGBT community. Add in the fact that Joel is a gay man who’s actually happy to be in a small midwestern town, and he's a true rarity.
But TV isn’t reality, of course, and there are people like Joel all across the actual midwest. “We were really grabbing the opportunity to look at these people and these communities that often don’t get looked at at all,” says Thureen, who himself comes from rural Minnesota. “We wanted to look at queer characters of faith who find comfort in their church, which is a real thing. There’s harm that can happen, but we’ve seen that story so much. We wanted to look at these other areas in between.”
Joel lives in that in-between space for most of the season, especially after he tells his pastor about his Choir Practice lie and then finds himself lacking both a church and a place to host his friends. But then in the final episode, when two characters are arguing in a gift shop, he’s able to diffuse the situation by quoting a Bible verse and drawing a parallel to their conflict. Just like that, he comes out as a pastor.
“When he’s confronted with a problem, this is what spills out of him,” says Thureen. “Joel has this innate gift. It flows out of him without thinking.”
Crucially, this isn’t the only way the show explores spirituality. Joel’s best friend Sam (Bridget Everett) isn’t religious, but singing and songwriting do for her what church does for him. However, since accepting her calling would mean confronting a personal loss she can’t yet face, she does her best to avoid music altogether.
By the season finale, though, she’s ready to sing a song she wrote specifically for Joel. It’s another type of coming out, where she acknowledges that she wants to channel her feelings into music.
Sam sings to Joel while they’re in a barn, which is similar to Joel having his preacher moment in a store that sells scented candles. “When you’re expressing who you really are, it doesn’t have to be in a particular place,” says Bos. “It’s about these people and what they’re making.”
That gets to the heart of the show. As Thureen says, “For Sam, it’s not about how to be a famous singer. It’s about, ‘How do you sing in the way you want to?’ And for Joel, it’s asking how he’s going to be a pastor without a church. We’re really interested in the places where people find community when they need community the most.”
HBO has renewed Somebody Somewhere for a second season. The show's first season is available for streaming on HBO Max.
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Mark Blankenship has been writing about arts and culture for twenty years, with bylines in The New York Times, Variety, Vulture, Fortune, and many others. You can hear him on the pop music podcast Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs.
TOPICS: Somebody Somewhere, HBO, Bridget Everett, Hannah Bos, Jeff Hiller, Paul Thureen, Religion and TV