Photo courtesy of HBO
A lot of us around the area are captivated by HBO’s Somebody Somewhere starring Manhattan native and New York comedy diva Bridget Everett. It’s a bit surreal to experience our town as the setting for a critically acclaimed show, with so many details that call to locals and transplants alike.
I remember Bridget Everett’s bigger-than-life personality when she was a star student at Manhattan High School. Bridget was a few years ahead of me in high school, so while I’m sure she has no memory of me, I remember looking up to her from the freshman cheap seats. She was a dominant varsity swimmer who also had a big singing voice and a bright smile that captured people’s attention. She was bold, confident and seemed to rock everything she did. Just like her friend Joel says of Bridget’s character Sam in Episode #1, Bridget was a BFD at Manhattan High School (circa 1990).
Because of our common MHS ties, I’ve followed Bridget’s rise to fame. Known for her notoriously over-the-top cabaret show at Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater in the other Manhattan, and a few lesser-known comedic roles on TV and in film (Patti Cake$, Fun Mom Dinner, Lady Dynamite, Inside Amy Schumer), Bridget’s star recently has been on the rise. But when I learned last fall that HBO was producing a semi-autobiographical show set in our mutual hometown, I was both a little nervous and extremely intrigued. (Call me paranoid, but Kansas doesn’t always attract positive press.)
I watched the series the first time purely for entertainment value — and to see how it portrayed those of us who call The Little Apple home. I see the show as authentically celebrating the quirky eccentricities that define life in Manhattan, Kansas, without stooping so low as to make fun of us. It’s a show that laughs with us, not at us, which is a delicate balance.
In retrospect, it’s interesting to realize the show was not created by Bridget. It was originally the brainchild of Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen, and I’ve read elsewhere that an earlier working title was actually Emporia (a smaller Kansas university town). It’s unclear how Bridget got involved and, when she did, why it evolved to include so much of her personal story.
Most of the series was shot in suburban Chicago, primarily Lockport and Warrenville, Illinois, enabling the production team to tap into the entertainment industry resources in that area. However, after my first viewing, I was so impressed with the details, props and b-roll footage included from the real Manhattan, Kansas, that once I’d finished watching the first season, I felt compelled to watch it again and put together a guide to help viewers separate what’s Manhattan-real from what’s fiction.
Click on the + sign to reveal each episode's analysis.
The show begins each episode with real footage of Manhattan, apparently filmed sometime in 2021. One of the first scenes shows the iconic “MANHATTAN” letters on Bluemont Hill overlooking downtown, from the perspective of what was then the sign for Bob’s Diner (now Antojitos Mexicanos El Sol). We next cut to a shot of the weird little character who has long graced the roof of the beloved Rock-a-Belly Deli in Aggieville, the well-known and frequently visited entertainment district located at the gates of Kansas State University. (See related story about businesses in Manhattan being featured in the show.)
We soon meet Sam Miller (Bridget), who is still numb from the death of her sister, Holly. From an interview with Bridget’s brother, Brad Everett, I learned that Bridget drew much inspiration for Sam’s storyline from the loss of their older sister, Brinton, in 2008.
Sam works at the ESTGC, the Excellence in Standardized Test Grading Center. From what I can tell, this is a purely fictional company not located in the real MHK. Sam has the monotonous job of grading kids’ standardized test essays. It is at the ESTGC that Sam meets co-worker Joel, masterfully played by Jeff Hiller. She learns that she and Joel were in show choir together at Manhattan High. While Sam has no memory of Joel, Joel has very vivid memories of Sam and her astounding voice. In real life, Bridget was in Pops Choir at MHS.
We soon see Bridget at home with her niece, Shannon, going through Holly’s things. Bridget is wearing a well-worn T-shirt from Aggieville’s beloved early morning hotspot, Varsity Donuts. Transition scenes show the equally iconic 400 block of Poyntz Avenue (Manhattan’s Main Street) stretching from Reed & Elliot Jewelers, past the Askren Building (home today to J&C Imaging), the Strecker-Nelson West Gallery, toward the vintage sign that adorns the Wareham Opera House.
We meet some other businesses in this first episode that are NOT in Manhattan (often referred to locally by its FAA acronym, MHK):
While going through Holly’s belongings, Bridget looks at a picture of herself swimming in the Blue M Yearbook, and I’m certain that photo is from the actual book produced by MHS student journalists in 1987.
Later in the episode, Joel invites her to “choir practice” at the Old Mills Mall, where we meet Fred Rococo, a professor of agriculture who also serves as the emcee for the group of outsiders who congregate there for “drinkin,’ dancin’ and fellowship.” (Fred is played by comedian and drag king Murray Hill, a real-life friend of Bridget.)
Fred refers to the mall as “a dying mall in the eighth largest city in Kansas.” While MHK is technically now the ninth largest city in Kansas, our mall, Manhattan Town Center, is not the mall used in the show. While many malls in America are struggling, I’d say ours is more vibrant than the one used in the show. So far, to my knowledge, no churches call it home.
Much has been written about the scene where Sam goes swimming. Bridget has been praised for her body positivity, which I loudly applaud. But that’s not what I want to point out here. The pool she swims in is not in Manhattan. Our town is desperately trying to figure out a way to build an indoor pool to serve us year-round ever since Kansas State University had to close its natatorium a few years ago. The Nat is where Bridget would have spent many hours training during her years on the swim team. (FYI, you can get involved in the current effort to build a new public indoor aquatics center at mhkaquatics.com/.)
It’s appropriate that it is at choir practice we first hear Sam sing, and that the team chose “Don’t Give Up,” made famous by Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush, for her introductory number. Through years of hard work, Bridget didn’t give up on her quest for stardom, and it’s all coming together for her as she’s closing in on her 50th birthday. Like Bridget, we have faith Sam will find her path throughout the series.
To start my analysis of this episode, can I just point out that knick-knacks and doodads are both very Kansas terms?
In the opening scene, we see Sam rudely awakened by noises her neighbor, Drew, is making with a saw at midday. Sam comes out furious, wearing only a University of Kansas Jayhawks T-shirt — and her underwear. It’s kind of a bold move to wear a KU shirt around here — this is a K-State town.
Next, Sam meets Joel, his boyfriend Michael, and Fred Rococo at The Chef Café for breakfast. The Chef is a very popular diner that’s located around the block from my office. On most mornings, The Chef does a rockin’ breakfast business, so Sam and Joel know how to pick the best place for a frittata. The exterior shots are of the real diner.
(Throughout the show there are many K-State Powercats, the university’s athletics logo, sprinkled around on coffee mugs, hats and clothing. I won’t note them all, but they are fun Easter eggs. See how many you can find and challenge your friends to find more!)
Sam is wearing a T-shirt in this scene from Louise’s West, an establishment in Lawrence, the town where Sam has spent much of her adult life before she returned to Manhattan to take care of Holly. (Lawrence, about 90 miles away, is home to the University of Kansas and is a rival community in many ways.) After breakfast, Sam and Joel walk through a fictional downtown Manhattan. This outdoor scene was not filmed in MHK. During the walk, Joel tells Sam that Fred is the “head of the entire dirt department” at K-State. (At K-State, they actually call it “soil.”)
Their walk ends at the store Tender Moments, owned by Sam’s sister Tricia, with her business partner, Charity. (Tender Moments also happens to be the name of Bridget’s cabaret band.) The store is very similar to several local home décor and gift shops, most notably Gatherings at 3 Thirteen, which also sells lots of upscale items that celebrate Manhattan, K-State and Kansas.
Tricia is played by Mary Catherine Garrison, who spent eight years as a roommate of Bridget in real life. Tricia, and her business partner, Charity, aspire to be the Manhattan Area Chamber of Commerce’s business of the year. (For transparency, I must point out that this article is underwritten, in part, by the Manhattan Area Chamber of Commerce, an organization whose awards are worthy of winning.)
While at Tricia’s house, Sam drinks a Boulevard Beer. (Bridget has reported in other articles that Kansas City’s own Boulevard Brewing Co. was started by her second cousin, John McDonald, the son of her uncle Ted.)
Later in the episode, Sam and Joel have a spat about their dreams for the future, and their dialogue shares themes that must be inspired by Bridget’s own experiences as someone who didn’t really achieve her dreams until later in life. Sam has been lectured by Charity and Tricia about getting her life on track, and Sam, in turn, makes fun of Joel for holding onto his dreams, even though he’s well into his 40s. She challenges the notion that Joel will ever fulfill his dreams while living in Kansas. Joel replies, “What’s wrong with this? It’s where I live.” Sam spouts back, “When will this happen, Joel? We’re in our 40s and it hasn’t happened yet. Not going to happen, and it’s definitely not going to happen here.” I can imagine Bridget saying something like this to herself earlier in her life, before she found her own success.
I’d just like to add my two cents here that many people have found their dreams in MHK. You don’t have to leave Kansas to find happiness, although Bridget’s real-life style of over-the-top, bawdy comedy probably does go over better in NYC than MHK. Ironically, the show’s producers must have wanted to make the same point, for soon after this exchange we’re shown footage of the “Manhappiness” sign adorning the old Varney’s Book Store/Rally House building in Aggieville.
The plot really starts to take off in Episode #3, but I’m going to keep the spoilers to myself. As far as local references, Poppy’s Clothing — a store with old-fashioned mannequins and a stuffed Toto in the window display that Tricia and Charity are so envious of — is not real. The other downtown exteriors also were not shot in MHK.
I do want to mention the family barbecue scene. From a conversation with Bridget’s brother, Brad, singing on the back porch seems very reminiscent of Everett-family get togethers. The entire picnic affair reminded me of many Kansas outdoor family dinners I’ve had (except in my memory, no one has ever left eggshells in a salad. Thankfully.).
Another familiar scene involves Joel and Sam driving on a country road, when a farmer on a tractor pulls right in front of them, causing them to have to dangerously pass just in the nick of time. Been there, done that.
Also spotted in this episode: More of Kansas City’s own Boulevard Tank 7 beer, a sunset shot of a softball diamond (I cannot verify whether it’s local) and a shot of Aggieville’s Rickel’s Liquor and the neighboring Shell gas station on Bluemont Avenue between 11th and 12th streets.
There is a lovely shot of purple wildflowers on the prairie during the title scene of this episode, which I believe I’ve properly identified as purple prairie clover (but don’t hold me to that — I’m no wildflower expert). This footage could be stock, but it also could have been shot at the Konza Prairie near Manhattan. Regardless, it’s a very good example of the natural beauty of the countryside surrounding MHK.
Sam invites herself on Joel and Michael’s date to the Bull and Bear, a fictional axe-throwing establishment located for the show’s purposes in the building that houses Porter’s next door to Varsity Donuts in Aggieville. While they’ve done a nice job of editing the building’s sign to look like a real business, Manhattan does sport two real axe-throwing businesses, Manhatchet and Axe to Grind. Always a non-conformist, in this scene Sam again sports a KU Jayhawks shirt, something not done casually in Aggieville. The group is also spotted drinking both Boulevard Tank 7 beer, and then later beer provided by Manhattan Brewing Company.
There’s a transitional shot in this episode of the corner of the Wareham Hotel building looking toward the Riley County Courthouse.
We learn that a character we previously met in Episode #1 at choir practice is Tiffani (played by Mercedes White), who is a veterinarian. K-State is home to the K-State College of Veterinary Medicine, so it’s fitting that Fred (an ag faculty member) would be friends with a veterinarian. Joel has brought Tiffani the dog he just spontaneously adopted from the mall. He’s now having buyer’s remorse, so Tiffani offers to help find the dog a new home.
This episode features another breakfast scene at The Chef, with Sam wearing yet another Varsity Donuts shirt (this time featuring their slogan “Donuts Make People Happy”). This time she’s dining with Fred, who is dressed in a K-State jersey. During this scene, Sam takes Fred into her confidence to share a burning secret. Fred Rococo must look like someone who will keep his mouth shut, because he’s brought into several characters’ confidence throughout the series.
Soon, everyone receives a tornado watch on their phones, and we watch the weather turn stormy while life in Kansas goes on uninterrupted (again, very similar to how most natives act during a storm watch — very few people even care, let alone take cover). During the storm, Sam finds Tricia cleaning their dad’s barn wearing an Alma Cheese shirt, and they weather the storm in the barn together, impulsively getting a little drunk as a respite from their very heated conversation.
In juxtaposed scenes, we also follow Joel and the dog’s journey as the storm hits — the two ride out the tornado in a drainage pipe, where Joel tells the dog he “cannot get rabies again.” I guess the producers felt you can’t have a show set in Kansas without working in a tornado scene. (I assure you, tornadoes don’t happen very often — and I personally know no one who’s had rabies.)
While drunk and laughing in the hay, Sam and Tricia sing the World War I era song “K-K-K-Katy,” which Brad reports is a favorite of Bridget’s mom, Freddie (and a song I have often sung to my own daughter, Kate!). They also chortle about a memory of their sister Holly laughing so hard while singing that she peed her pants, which Brad says is a favorite family story about Brinton.
This episode starts with shots of Fred and his students working in the Miller family’s corn fields (Kansas is better known for wheat and soybeans, although you certainly do see corn in these parts). We also see shots of the sign at Top of the World (a popular make-out spot for teenagers in Bridget’s high school days), shots of the wonderful vintage neon sign at Vista Drive-In, and exteriors of the aforementioned Manhattan Brewing Company downtown.
I haven’t talked much here about Sam’s parents, Ed and Mary Jo, to avoid plot spoilers, but I am struck repeatedly how much Ed reminds me of the strong, silent, farmer-type of man I’ve known my whole life. Played by Mike Hagerty, Ed stifles his feelings, hates conflict, loves his family and faith, and hates to admit he’s growing older and needs help. He’s frustratingly astute in some of his observations and incredibly blind in others. He feels very Kansas-authentic for a man of his generation.
I’ll leave out mentioning plot details as this is another turning point in the story, but once again we have a breakfast meeting set at The Chef. And then we have another scene during which Fred becomes a confidant, this time for Ed. (They have a brilliant exchange about no-till farming where Fred gives Ed a huge farmer-compliment: “You’re a real good steward of your land.”)
There’s a later scene at Tender Moments when we see several Kansas- and K-State-themed products. Sam also visits a fictional business called Prairie Prayers, which is not a real location in MHK.
This episode features opening shots of the Flint Hills, the “MANHATTAN” sign overlooking town on Bluemont Hill and birds perched atop a limestone building I swear is MHK’s First United Methodist Church. In this episode, Sam takes Joel church shopping, and the exteriors of several churches are shown. I don’t believe any of these churches are in MHK. However, Sam and Joel do visit a church with a bell choir reminiscent of the one First United Methodist Church has long been known for.
Later, Charity and Tricia have a fight with the best Midwestern-woman insult I’ve heard in a long time: “You think you’re Pinterest, but you’re really Hobby Lobby.” After the fight scene, we see several downtown exteriors near Tender Moments, which are not in MHK.
One of my favorite scenes occurs in Fred’s underground poker palace, which is supposed to be his tornado shelter/mancave. K-State superfan Fred has decorated this space with his crops-judging team national champion banners (1994 and 2002), a purple boa, Kansas license plates, and his framed Rococo 19 Wildcats Jersey. Fred, a very loyal faculty member, is once again adorned in K-State purple.
While playing poker, the motley crew once again drink Boulevard Beer, and I also spotted a Manhattan Brewing Company koozie. They go for a drunken escapade to Ed’s barn (luckily escaping both accidents and the attention of the RCPD) in Fred’s purple party bus. The bus — which is a very authentic vehicle to those familiar with the rich tailgating traditions surrounding K-State football — provides a venue for Sam to let go and sing some very Bridget Everett-esque cabaret numbers.
At the barn, Sam sings the song “Brought Me Home” to Joel, which Bridget wrote herself with her friend Matt Ray. Afterwards, we see Sam contentedly looking out the window of the party bus as they cruise her hometown at night, and we see another exterior shot of The Chef with its “MHK Love” sticker on the window. These stickers were sold as a fundraiser for local businesses during the early days of the pandemic and still adorn many windows of independent retailers and restaurants.
This episode also features transition scenes of the First United Methodist Church, Varsity Donuts, the Wareham Hotel, Reed & Elliot Jewelers, and the rest of the 400 block of Poyntz Avenue, all of which were featured earlier in the season.
This episode’s credits appropriately feature the band Kansas’ classic rock superhit, “Dust in the Wind.” I also spotted Brad’s name in the credits as the show’s Manhattan Whisperer, and Bridget’s brother Brock (also a comedian) was named as her Kansas Cruiser.
If you recognize other local callouts I missed, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. I can always add more details!
Photos from Somebody Somewhere Courtesy of HBO and Warner Media. Local photos by Kristin Brighton.