Hiller looks back on a bittersweet season without costar Mike Hagerty and tells PEOPLE how the Bridget Everett-led HBO series is "brave enough to be real about" how complicated friendship can be
Warning: This post contains spoilers about the season 2 finale of HBO's Somebody Somewhere.
Somebody Somewhere concluded its second season with a wedding, a reconciliation and a touching tribute to a late costar. To mark the occasion, star Jeff Hiller chatted with PEOPLE about the show, which he likens to TV "Xanax."
The wholesome Bridget Everett-led dramedy has been growing through word of mouth during its first two seasons because it "relieves all that pressure" that can be built up while watching deliciously dark series on the air these days. (Just as an example, Somebody Somewhere directly followed the finales of critically acclaimed series Succession and Barry on this particular Sunday night.) And while Hiller acknowledges "there's no international intrigue or planning elections or whatever," there were very real stakes as the end of season 2 neared, with the fate of the friendship between Hiller's Joel and Everett's Sam briefly in question.
Leading up to Sunday's two-episode closer, Sam had shut out Joel for keeping his blossoming relationship with Brad (Tim Bagley) a secret, even missing the pre-wedding festivities for their mutual friend Fred (Murray Hill) and his bride-to-be Susan (Jennifer Mudge). Fortunately by the time the wedding took place at Sam's family farm, Sam had resolved to forgive Joel — and to work on her habit of pushing away those closest to her.
Still, Sam and Joel's rift was a rare moment of tension for the pair, who'd developed a deep, and deeply affirming, bond by supporting each other through periods of grief, self-doubt and loneliness — not to mention powering through thousands of steps and DNDNs (Designated Non-Drinking Nights) together.
"I'm super invested in the friendship," Hiller, 46, tells PEOPLE. "I want them to still be with each other ... so it's difficult to see them in pain — and it's also relatable. I think we've all had friendships like that where you're so close to the exclusion of others, and it's not sustainable to have a relationship that's that close. And so eventually that little bubble is going to be popped, and it hurts when that bubble is popped."
As Joel officiated Fred and Susan's wedding, his speech meditated on the "fear, apprehension" that comes with change before noting that "change can bring miraculous growth" as well. And Somebody Somewhere's season 2 finale showed that Sam and Joel will have a path forward in their friendship as long as they are willing to accept that it — and they — will change.
"They have that beautiful moment when they're rehearsing together at the piano [before the wedding], and she says, 'I don't want to cut people out anymore. I'm trying,'" Hiller says. "And it's this beautiful moment of growth for her, and he tells her sincerely, 'I love you,' and it's so nice."
Of course, their friendship dynamic will be shifted by the presence of Brad and his infamous St. Louis sushi. "When they're at the wedding," says Hiller, "Sam looks at all of these people in couples, and it's not going to be the same. It's not possible to be the same."
Adds the 2023 Independent Spirit Award nominee: "And this show is smart enough and brave enough to be real about that — and to be honest that [Joel] can't have a romantic relationship and still have a friendship with Sam that was as close as the way that they were."
For Hiller, a new love interest for Joel is a thrill — not least of which for the chance to act opposite Bagley, a veteran character actor who's had recurring roles on Will & Grace and Grace and Frankie. "He just creates this instant chemistry," says Hiller of Bagley, 65, who TV fans will also recognize as Jennifer Coolidge's date to the 2023 SAG Awards.
And for Joel, Brad brings a natural "sincerity," says Hiller. "He's OK being vulnerable and intimate in a way that Sam is a little bit afraid of. And I think that Brad can connect with Joel on that sincerity level that Sam can't just can't." He adds, "And I think also they can have kisses. That always helps."
Hiller, who most recently played against type as a menacing serial killer in American Horror Story: NYC, explains: "I've never done an on-screen kiss. I mean, before this, other than that serial killer role, basically, I've just played waiters. Nobody's kissing me. And it is great ... being able to play lots of different colors and just having three-dimensionality. It's so much more exciting than just being the waiter and being like, 'Sorry, your food is late' or whatever."
But even as Somebody Somewhere's writer teed up new love and positive life changes in season 2, the show was struck by tragedy just weeks before filming when Hiller and Everett's costar Mike Hagerty — who played Sam's father Ed — died unexpectedly at age 67.
Hiller shares that Hagerty's death was not only emotionally tumultuous for the cast and crew, it also created a major storytelling challenge. "Mike figured very prominently into season 2, and the writers had to rewrite the entire season while they were grieving, while they were in shock, while they were mourning," he recalls.
Given that the show's first season storyline centered on Sam's grief after losing her sister to cancer, the writers chose not to write Hagerty's death into season 2 and instead sent Ed away on an extended boating trip. That said, the show paid homage to Hagerty by including a title card on the season 2 premiere and including a heartfelt speech by Fred at the wedding that thanked Ed — and, by extension, Hagerty — for his kindness and acceptance.
Hagerty was likewise a "calming presence" on set, says Hiller. And when confronted with how to handle his absence, "I think the writers really wanted him to come along, ride with us for a little bit longer. And I think that's nice. I like that he's still in that world."
"I think they did a really, really good job," Hiller affirms, "but I can't imagine how difficult that was. And throughout the entire shoot, I mean, that's why they say, that's why that last episode is called 'To Ed.' It's like, we were constantly being like, 'This is for Mike' — because he wasn't just an actor. He was sort of paternal. It was like losing a family member."
Much of the magic of Somebody Somewhere, though, come from the show's subtle finesse in blending all the nuances of life, from grief and quiet struggle to moments of unexpected jubilation. And nothing in the finale embodied that balance as much as Sam's surprise performance of Laura Branigan's 1982 "Gloria" at the wedding reception.
Joel had previously mentioned that he would want that song at his own wedding, which very well could have rubbed Sam the wrong way given her misgivings about Joel's relationship with Brad. Instead, she effectively belted out her approval by serenading Joel not long after they made up.
The song also had personal meaning for Hiller. "The reason they chose 'Gloria' is because it's one of my favorite songs," he explains. "During season 1 ... I was living with Bridget and Murray, and multiple times when they would get in my car, that song would just be on my little Spotify playlist playing out into the car. And it became our anthem that we would sing as we were driving around rural Illinois. And so when I needed a song, Bridget was like, 'I got the song,' and it just so happens that she sings it wonderfully."
Not only did the song send Joel into rapturous movement, it gave Hiller the chance to experience being motorboated by his leading lady.
As fans of Everett, 51, know, it's one of her signature moves, but Hiller tells PEOPLE: "That was my first time, actually. I mean, I've seen her motorboat lots of people at her shows, but I've never been the motorboatee, and she just did it on the spur of the moment. It was a surprise, but it's such a sweet moment of the song is sort of an olive branch. This is a song that he loves that she chooses to sing for him. In a way, that's like Sam's hug."
Another Everett signature that found its way from behind the scenes to on screen: Sam and Joel's beloved "teeny 'tinis."
Telling PEOPLE the cocktails are "absolutely" made of vodka and feature a lemon twist that's "very artistic," Hiller dishes: "That's a real Bridget Everett thing. If you go to her house or if you are living with her at a house in Glen Ellen, Illinois, she'll make you a delicious teeny 'tini — which, by the way, is not all that teeny."
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Somebody Somewhere can be streamed in full on Max.
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