Of all the joys on television over the past year, one of the purest has been HBO’s dramedy Somebody Somewhere, created by Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen — and of all the gems in the series, one of its brightest is Jeff Hiller’s Joel. Bridget Everett’s Sam might be the protagonist, and every character down the line contributes in ways big and small to its magic. But it is Hiller’s performance, disarmingly warm and deeply hilarious, that most fully embodies the show’s heart.
It’s difficult at first to pin down exactly who Joel is, because Somebody Somewhere specializes in characters too complex to be reduced to familiar archetypes. What is clear from the start is that this gangly, unassuming fellow radiates sweetness. Early in the first episode, he lets slip to Sam that they first met in high school choir. “I knew I recognized you!” she exclaims. He responds with a sunny smile: “No, you didn’t.”
It’s a small moment, but one that quickly lays the foundation for one of the series’ most lovable characters. There’s no trace of disappointment or self-pity in his response, only a genial matter-of-factness. Here is a man who knows exactly who he is, who’s accepted himself for it and who now willingly extends that same grace to others.
Also, it’s funny, because it’s always amusing to watch one character call out another’s bullshit. A few scenes later, Hiller leans into Sam with his eyes sparkling to snark on a mutual classmate’s terrible new book, and it becomes apparent that Joel is not without a sly streak that makes him the best of best friends, and the most winsome of TV characters: someone you can rely on for silliness as well as sympathy.
With each passing episode, Joel adds new layers still. He’s an anxious wreck, but also a steadfast leader. He’s so generous, you might mistake him for a pushover, but strong enough to protect his own heart and the hearts of the people (or the recently adopted dog) he loves. He’s a total dork, but one so earnest in his total dorkiness that he comes back around to being kind of cool, in the way that anyone so completely themselves feels kind of cool.
It’s a lot to ask of a single actor to personify all those qualities at once. Hiller does it so naturally, it’s often easy to forget he’s acting at all. Every one of Joel’s lines, his emotions, even his gestures — like the way he laughs with his mouth wide open, as if his delight is simply too enormous to be contained — seem to come from somewhere deep inside of Hiller’s own soul.
As a 40-something gay man who’s sustained by religion and finds community in his small Midwestern town instead of searching for it in the big city, Joel as written is already a character who defies the narrative formulas we’ve come to expect. But it’s Jeff Hiller who takes him to the next level — who takes this thoughtfully written character and brings him to life as that rarest of creatures, a true original.
This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.