When the sudden death of Mike Hagerty, one of the show’s stars, forced the creators to retool the new season, they sprinkled tributes to him throughout the episodes.
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By Alexis Soloski
In the first episode of the new season of “Somebody Somewhere,” the poignant Kansas-set comedy that returned to HBO this week, Sam (Bridget Everett) receives a letter from her father, Ed. The letter informs her that he has gone to join his brother in Corpus Christi, Texas. Ed, a farmer, has charged Sam with feeding the chickens, mowing the lawn and cleaning out the barn. Sam begins her chores, but when she finds Ed’s baseball cap, she begins to tear up.
“It just feels really weird to be here with all his stuff,” Sam says. “I know he couldn’t have cleaned out this barn — it would have broken his heart. I didn’t know it would break mine.”
Heartbreak might seem like a strong reaction to some rusted farm equipment. But Mike Hagerty, the actor who played Ed, had died unexpectedly in May 2022, at the age of 67, about a month before filming began for the Season 2. Ed lives on, sailing across the Gulf of Mexico; his absence and Hagerty’s absence inform most of the season. In its quiet, fine-grained way, these episodes of “Somebody Somewhere” provide a eulogy in comedy form, with grief triangulated and transformed.
“We knew we wanted to dedicate the season to him,” Hannah Bos, a “Somebody Somewhere” creator, said in a recent video call. “We wanted to celebrate him.”
Hagerty, a Chicago native and an alum of the Second City comedy troupe, best known for a five-episode run as the building superintendent on “Friends,” joined the series for the pilot in 2019. Carolyn Strauss, an executive producer, had worked with him before, on the short-lived series “Lucky Louie.” She bet that Hagerty — bushy haired, jowly, with a heart as big as a prairie — would bring warmth and solidity to the taciturn Ed. She won that bet.
When Everett, a Kansas-born actress and cabaret star, met him for a chemistry read, she started crying before he had even said a word. “I felt immediately really safe,” she said on that same video call. Strauss and Paul Thureen, the show’s other creator, were also on the line.
“It just felt like the right match and the right person and also like I’d met a friend,” Everett said. “I’m not trying to be corny; it’s just really how I felt.”
Bos and Thureen enjoyed writing for Hagerty, knowing that he could make any line sound grounded and sincere, that he could endow even simple dialogue with depth. And Everett felt that she grew as an actor every time she was opposite him. He felt to her, she said, like a surrogate father.
“Often I get really nervous on sets,” she said. “His affable, calm, steady hand, it set me at ease.”
Hagerty seemed to enjoy himself, too. In February 2022, in Los Angeles, HBO hosted a special screening for the Season 1 finale. Strauss chatted with him there, and she recalled him cracking that the show had taught him two words he’d never heard before in his long career: “Season 2.” To celebrate, he bought himself a Toyota RAV4.
That spring, Hagerty entered Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, feeling unwell. The Season 2 scripts had already been written, and he planned to participate in a table read from his hospital bed. But he was ultimately too ill to join. On May 5, following an adverse reaction to an antibiotic, he died.
The initial response from the producers and his co-stars was a mix of shock and grief. There was a group Zoom call, with cast and creators crying in their separate windows, sharing memories of Hagerty.
“He really did feel like a North Star in terms of what we were creating and what we had done,” Strauss said. “So it was hard to believe; it felt very unreal.”
Twining with the grief was an understandable amount of panic. The shoot was set to begin in two weeks, and Hagerty was meant to be in almost every episode. Amy Gravitt, HBO’s executive vice president of comedy, made many individual calls, telling the showrunners and producers to take all the time that they needed to mourn — to put off worrying about the show. But Bos and Thureen knew that to put it off for too long would risk losing actors and crew members. A frantic rewrite began.
At first, no one knew what to do about Ed, but Strauss, Bos and Thureen felt that they shouldn’t have him die. Season 1 had begun shortly after the death of Sam’s sister Holly — as the show follows Sam’s halting steps toward self-acceptance and a full adult life, the thinking went, another death and an explicit focus on grief would set her back too far.
Everett wasn’t so sure. Her own sister and father had died a year apart, and she figured the show, which operates with an unusual degree of realism, might as well mirror that. But after sleeping on it, she agreed.
Production was pushed back two weeks. Strauss worried that wouldn’t be enough time for a full rewrite, but she didn’t share that worry with the others. As originally written, the season had focused partly on Ed growing too old for hands-on farming and on his relationship with his wife, an alcoholic. He also played a role in a season-ending wedding. All of that had to be retooled. So Bos, Thureen and Everett got to work on Zoom. Thureen said these sessions, however fraught, brought relief.
“It helped in a weird way to have something to focus on,” he said. “It turned into a creative problem-solving thing.”
With Strauss’s help, they all worked to find a metaphor that would account for Hagerty’s absence and honor his life. Together they came up with the idea of the brother’s boat and sending Ed across the water, finally free. They also made him a presence throughout several episodes, via occasional letters and phone calls.
When it came time to do the scene in the barn, Everett was anxious about how it would feel to act without Hagerty. “That was going to be an emotional house of cards for me,” she said. “We all kind of felt it. Just being there without him was devastating.” She had learned the monologue about cleaning out the barn by heart, but when it came time to speak it, the loss of Hagerty overtook her. The tears she cries in the scene are very real.
“We only did it two times or three times because it was just a little much,” she said. “I just wanted to say it and then let it go.”
Later in the season, there is a funeral for a different character. This became an oblique tribute to Hagerty, with his memory shadowing several of the eulogies. “A poetic honoring,” Thureen called it. And in the final episode, a wedding reception pauses to honor Ed.
“Raise your glasses everybody, raise them high — this is to Ed,” a character says. It was a way of making sure that Ed was still there, still a part of this family and this community.
If “Somebody Somewhere” is renewed for further seasons, Ed, however far away, will remain a part of them. The creative team is already kicking around Ed-centered ideas for Season 3. Hagerty, in his own way, remains with the show, too.
“His impact endures,” Strauss said. “He’s left everybody with a gift: that gravity and humor and forthrightness that characterize him, we all carry it.”
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