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We All Need Somebody Somewhere
And the harsh realities of the ordinary middle
Hello, I am on vacation. So please enjoy this review of two of my favorite bits of television I’ve seen. One was seen on HBO and the other in the Cedar Rapids library. It’s come to my attention, that while on my vacation Twitter has broken down entirely. So please share this email by forwarding it to friends, neighbors, and enemies. And thank you for subscribing. It’s because of you that I can stay here and I don’t have to move.
I sat in an auditorium at my public library, surrounded by friends and neighbors. Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is the kind of town that is just big enough to be a city, but just small enough that your therapist grew up with your doctor and knows your neighbor because they all grew up together.
My friend Keaton Fuller was premiering an eight-episode video series that he and a collection of people in town had worked on for years. The show, “Friendly Faces,” follows a gay man named Ollie, who lives in the fictional small town of Harmony. Ollie forms a company that offers friendship services to lonely people in town for a small fee. “Friendly Faces” follows Ollie and his straight-man sidekick as they help a murderous and lonely clown, a self-absorbed vlogger, and even a dead man learn the meaning of friendship — that you have someone by your side. The episodes were madcap, dark, louche, tenderhearted, bizarre, over-the-top, and endearingly honest. So, a lot like living in this town for the past 20 years.
At one point, a character says to another, “We need other people. It’s easy to pretend like we don’t, but we really do.”
It’s a simple but profound statement, not least because the production schedule of the show was interrupted by a worldwide pandemic that has helped to isolate all of us, and killed millions and continues to kill. We need each other. “Friendly Faces,” with its huge sense of drama and even larger heart, felt all the more meaningful because it’s set here in Iowa, a state where the governor said during the 2020 shutdowns that maintaining operations at the Tyson’s frozen food plant was worth risking people’s lives. A state that just passed a law banning books with LGBTQ themes in them from schools and another law banning minors from accessing gender-affirming care.
In his introductory remarks, Keaton told the crowd that it was important to him to have stayed in Iowa and have made his art here; to have chosen this community and this place.
Keaton’s show was moving not just because I know him and we have friends in common, but because it’s in dialogue with something so essential about Iowa and the Midwest — the community, the way it holds you even when you’d rather it let you go.
There is another show that speaks to this essential truth — “Somebody Somewhere,” a HBO original created and starred in by the comedian Bridget Everett. Everett plays Sam, a washed-up 40-something singer who returns to her hometown of Manhattan, Kansas, after the death of her sister. The show’s primary relationship is between Sam and her friend Joel, a gay man with a deep sense of faith and optimism. His insistence on believing in love and hope clashes with Sam’s more cynical outlook. At one point, Sam tells Joel she’s never been in love; when Joel is surprised, she tells him, “Now why would I want to do that to myself?” Instead, she’d rather “sit around judging people that choose love and lose.”
Small places with big skies push us close against one another, forcing us to grapple with identity not in the theoretical but in our community.
The show centers queer characters living in a red state. But the show’s drama doesn’t center their victimization; its focus is their love and friendships, and their messy attempts at intimacy, joy, and love. All the characters feel real — even normal. There is Sam, played by Everett; Fred (comedian and drag king Murray Hill); Sam’s surviving sister Tricia Miller, played by Mary Catherine Garrison; and a host of other complex, warm-hearted characters. These characters are made in the breadmakers of our mother’s Midwestern kitchens — they eat St. Louis sushi, shit themselves, sip cheap wine out of plastic cups, and wear jorts. And the landscape and settings look normal, too — split-level homes, moldering barns, kitschy little shops, weedy yards. Everything is extraordinary in its ordinariness.
People love to tell me that they don’t recognize the Midwest anymore. They say this when faced with the red-state politics and policies that rule rural areas. I always disagree; I don’t think it’s that much different. Politics ebb and flow. Hate exists here, and so does violence, but hate and violence exist everywhere. What’s different here is they’re harder to hide from. Small places with big skies push us close against one another, forcing us to grapple with identity not in the theoretical but in our community.
Maybe this is true of most places — social media has made it easier to trace the web connecting us all. And life, if you’ve lived it long enough in one place, can feel so small and claustrophobic. You are always turning corners being reminded of versions of yourself that once existed, and versions of other people that no longer do. It’s claustrophobic, this closeness. I dream often of moving away. But it is also a comfort.
These constantly colliding selves force us to reckon with people and ourselves not as caricatures, or props in the drama of our lives, but as humans, with mess and complications and ordinary humanity.
In “Somebody Somewhere” Tricia’s judgmental attitudes, including homophobia, are depicted early on in the show, and for a time she functions as the show’s villain. But her marriage falls apart and she loses her business. She takes a job at a supermarket. She’s lost everything she hoped her life would be and finds herself ostracized by old friends. And as she tries to rebuild, she relies on Sam and her queer friends for comfort, help, community, and business.
I’m reminded of the words of Bess Streeter Aldritch in her short story Main Street, “A handful of people,”, “they say we are, knotted together like roots in the darkness. Blind souls, they call us — struggling spirits who can never find deliverance from sordid surroundings. Poor thinkers! Not to know that from tangled roots shimmering growth may spring to the light in beautiful winged release.”
It would be easy to depict Tricia as an unrepentant villain, a hateful, flatly depicted rube. Far more honest to show her as a human, lost and low like the rest of us, without offering any excuses.
These shows were created independently from one another, one on HBO and the other filmed at a library in Cedar Rapids, and yet both “Friendly Faces” and “Somebody Somewhere,” find their central tension in this ordinary mess of humanity and set as their backdrop this ordinary middle of America. Both shows, arrive at the same conclusion — we desperately need each other.
In small spaces, you don’t always get to pick your community. Sometimes the person who helps you on the side of the road is the same guy who helped get you fired. Sometimes the person who caters your wedding is the woman who tried to sleep with the husband of your realtor. It’s a mess. It’s the Midwest.