TV: Barry (Seasons 1 & 2)

Considering the ludicrous speed at which I inhaled the first two seasons of HBO’s Barry, I feel like I should making a glowing, whole-hearted recommendation. But my reaction is tempered by nebulous caveats. I’m not sure if it’s the show itself, or our troubled times, or my frayed pandemic psychology, but I can’t entirely put my finger on how to feel about Barry, other than to say that it’s compulsively watchable, funny, unpredictable, brilliantly acted, thought-provoking, and problematic. I guess I loved it, but should I?

Barry has an enviable elevator pitch: what if a professional hit man gets the acting bug and moves to Hollywood? The kicker: what if the hit man is played by Bill Hader? (I mean, this shit sells itself!) Hader plays former U.S. Marine Barry Berkman, a veteran of Afghanistan who clearly has dark skeletons in his closet. Now he’s an assassin, carrying out hits under the direction of the fast-talking Monroe Fuches (Stephen Root), who manages Barry’s career with a mix of avuncular encouragement and self-interested gas-lighting. So far, Barry—a placid enough fellow clearly struggling with traumatic baggage—has come to terms with his job because he’s convinced that Fuches is only accepting contracts to take out genuinely bad people. That all changes when Barry is sent off to L.A. to kill an innocuous physical trainer whose only crime is that he’s sleeping with the girlfriend of  Chechen mob boss Goran Pazar (Glenn Fleshler). Already weary of killing, Barry botches his reconnaissance and ends up standing in as a scene partner for his target during an acting class. Barry is a terrible actor, but it’s a transformative moment nonetheless, and not just because he’s attracted to the star of the class, Sally Reed (Sarah Goldberg). He’s also desperate for a sense of purpose, and to put his murderous ways behind him. To that end, he convinces acting instructor Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler), the class’s Svengali-like therapist/guru, to let him join the class. Unfortunately, Fuches has no intention of letting his meal ticket change careers, increasingly entangling him in sketchy—and dangerous—criminal endeavors.

Barry hits the ground running with a tight, compelling pilot, and the episodes that follow are breathlessly entertaining from start to finish. The plaudits are manifold, especially for the acting, with Hader bringing his familiar comic expertise to a deadpan, surprisingly serious role that often lurches into shocking, effective dramatics. The preternaturally amusing Root is uncharacteristically villainous as the scheming, loathsome Fuches, a character so awful that Barry’s dead-eyed hitman often looks saintly by comparison. Goldberg is superb as the neurotic aspiring actress who wins Barry’s heart, and Winkler has never been better as the insightful but slyly self-interested Gene, repeatedly taking Barry under his wing like a father figure—but always with one hand in Barry’s wallet. The acting class presents an enjoyable ensemble that includes D’arcy Carden and Kirby Howell-Baptiste, among others, and lurking in the background is a demented, meddlesome Chechen mob, which features Anthony Carrigan as the amiable, hilarious “NoHo Hank,” a mob criminal whose threatening actions are constantly undermined by his inherent, relentless politeness.

Aside from the acting, Barry serves up an inventive, unpredictable narrative blending dark comedy, thriller action, drama, and constantly escalating crime-story peril. Spirited humor, suspense, and even romance carry the story briskly from one complication to the next, maintaining high-wire tension that positively dares you not to segue immediately into the next episode. But it’s here—in the story’s somewhat schizophrenic, restless inventiveness—that Barry comes close to breaking itself. After wooing the viewer into rooting for Barry to get out from under his dilemma and finally leave his  homicidal ways behind, the writers constantly thrust Barry into new jams and conundrums. Most of these involve Barry taking new jobs, which invariably mean more killings, and while it looks initially like the show is going to let him off the hook and offload his guilt to Fuches, in the end…well, let’s just say lines are crossed. You want to like Barry, but in the end he does truly awful things, and it’s difficult to sustain your investment in him at a certain point, especially when his actions start to jeopardize and hurt the people around him.

Part of me wonders if this is part of Barry‘s objective, of course. Does it have an endgame involving confrontation with the problematic elements of the antihero drama? That would explain how Barry’s reprehensible behavior contrasts so starkly with the supposed villainy of good-natured NoHo Hank, for example. But in the end, the messaging is so all over the place that I’m not sure it really has a coherent message. It feels like many shows: a smidge of Breaking Bad, a hint of Dexter, a splash of The Sopranos, a dollop (somehow) of Party Down. There’s even an Atlanta-like setpiece episode in season two, “ronny/lily,” which serves up a completely bonkers hit-gone-wrong. It’s a brilliant episode, but also just so wrong. And throughout, there are glimmers of real heart and humanity despite the abominable acts that surround them. Barry’s attempts to cope with his wartime past, and to come to grips with what all his killing has done to him, are thought-provoking, and Hader makes these dark moments sing. But the toxic male redemption story is just so, so done, and Barry at times threatens to go in that direction.

Ultimately, I’m down for wherever Barry  decides to go, because I truly can’t make out the destination ahead, and I’m desperately curious to find out what it’s going to look like. In the meantime, I’ll look forward to wrestling with its thorny, funny, wildly unpredictable journey.


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