East Grand Forks alum writes HBO series airing Sunday
Jan. 13—GRAND FORKS — Paul Thureen, a 1996 graduate of East Grand Forks Senior High School, and his writing partner are part of the creative team that has produced the series "Somebody Somewhere," which debuts at 9:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 16, on HBO and will be streamed on HBO Max.
Thureen calls the seven-episode series a "dramedy," a mix of drama and comedy, and describes it as a "passion project (with) a lot of heart."
The story, set in Manhattan, Kansas, revolves around the main character, "Sam" — played by Bridget Everett — who, in her late 40s, returns to her hometown after her sister becomes ill. When her sister dies, Sam decides to stay.
After high school, Sam had gone away for college in a large city, Thureen said, "and she stuck around, bar-tending for years, working small jobs, and then all of a sudden, 20 years pass."
"She's stuck, sleep-walking through life and now she's back in her hometown and she's trying to figure out what to do with her life," he said. Sam has the "gift of singing," but while growing up, her way of doing it was looked down upon, and she was unaware that a music and comedy career "is something even that you can do."
The series is actually inspired by Everett's life. The New York-based singer and comedian with "a big personality" grew up in Kansas. She is a "great performer," said Thureen. He and his writing partner, Hannah Bos, live in Brooklyn, New York.
"We've been fans of hers for years," he said. "She's very real; she makes you laugh and breaks your heart. People will be blown away by what she can do."
"Somebody Somewhere" is also an authentic depiction of Midwestern life, which is often portrayed as "caricature or too hokey or precious," Thureen said. It was important for him and Bos that they got those details of Midwestern life right.
And the themes explored in the series are universal, felt by many, regardless of the location or size of their hometown, he said.
Growing up, Everett remembers "always being told to tamp down her big personality. And I think that's sort of a common thing that a lot of people feel when they're around their family and they want to do something else" outside of family expectations.
"For a lot of people, it takes some growth or going away for a while or figuring out a way that you can figure out who you are and to be yourself — and this is a person who's never had that opportunity," Thureen said.
"The tagline we use is it's a 'coming of middle age' story, because she's never had that chance to figure out who she is, and so now she's doing that at this point in her life — which isn't always the easiest thing to do when you are back with your family."
With the desire to create a series based on Everett's life, producer Carolyn Strauss — who also was executive producer on the series "Game of Thrones" and "Chernobyl" — turned to Thureen and Bos, originally from the Chicago area, to write the script "partly because of that Midwestern connection," he said.
"(Strauss and her colleagues) said there are so many TV shows about the person from a small town who goes to the big city to make it big. Their idea was, what if someone like Bridget — who's this amazing singer, comedian with sort of a filthy mouth from time to time — what if she stayed in her hometown and how would she follow her dreams where she was?
"So we came up with our own idea of it and pitched that idea, and they said let's do it."
The whole project took about a year. Because of production shutdowns due to COVID, "we had extra time to be really deliberate," he said. "It's usually a much quicker process."
It was the first time he and Bos had written for a show of this length.
"Before you write, you figure out the story of the whole season, and once you have that figured out, then you outline and then you write the episodes," he said. Because of the pandemic, they worked virtually with another writer.
The pilot episode was shot outside Chicago in October 2019, Thureen said. With the onset of the pandemic in spring 2020 and the subsequent shutdowns, the other six episodes were written that year and the series was shot in May 2021.
In their role as "showrunner," Thureen and Bos were on set to oversee production, along with other producers. In the editing process, they worked with others in a virtual editing room, which "was a really fun and exciting part of the process," he said.
In the script-writing, Thureen drew "quite a bit" from his own experience growing up in this area — from his elementary schooling in Alvarado, Minn., to eventually finding his niche in theater and music performance as a student in East Grand Forks schools.
"The idea of a small-town arts community and finding the people who have your common interests and how important those people can be in your life, I think that that's a big part of this show as well," he said.
Qualities of his father, Gordon Thureen, a retired farmer, are also reflected in the series. Sam's relationship with her father "was very much inspired by my dad," he said. "I think also that growing up on a farm, growing up in a rural community, there are storylines that deal with the struggles of running a small farm. That very much came from my life and experience.
"It was very exciting for me to write a storyline that (includes a scene) where Sam's dad gets locked in the grain bin," he said with a chuckle. "And I can't remember ever having seen a grain bin in a TV show. It's fun to write about those things that are inspired by my life ... and being on set and bringing those things to life."