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Josh Reviews Barry Seasons One and Two

July 8th, 2020
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Early on during our social isolation, my wife and I caught up with the HBO series Barry.  Bill Hader stars as the titular Barry, a former marine turned hitman who attempts to recreate himself after accidentally walking into an acting class and being mistaken as a prospective student.  The lonely Barry becomes enamored with the found family of wannabe actors he discovers in the acting class taught by Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler).  And he’s as surprised as anyone to discover that he actually has a modicum of skill at performing!  Suddenly Barry begins to envision a whole new life for himself.  But getting out of the hitman game doesn’t prove nearly as simple as Barry hopes it will be.

I was immediately taken by Barry, which was created by Mr. Hader and TV veteran Alec Berg (who wrote for Seinfeld and was an Executive Producer on Curb Your Enthusiasm and Silicon Valley).  Bill Hader has long since proven himself to me as a terrific actor, in such films as The Skeleton Twins and Trainwreck.  But he’s operating at a new level here, and he is magnificent as the central character on this show.  This is not a showy role.  Barry is an extremely buttoned-down, very internal character.  Mr. Hader has to convey a vast array of emotion without much movement or many big speeches, but he effortlessly allows the audience to engage with Barry’s struggles and journey.  There are a number of deeply emotional, dramatic moments on the show, and Mr. Hader nails every single one.  His comedic skills are also key here.  Most of the jokes on the show don’t involve any sort of standard set-up/punch-line; instead, the humor tends to come from the absurdity of the crazy situations that Barry finds himself in, and his deadpan reactions.  Mr. Hader never winks at the audience or allows a hint of playing a joke into his performance; this renders his performance very funny.  It’s a tight needle to thread but he nails it perfectly.  (I should also note that some of the best demonstrations of Mr. Hader’s acting abilities are the scenes in which we see that Barry is a bad actor.  A good actor convincingly acting badly is not as easy as you might think.  But Mr. Hader is so great, and so funny, in those moments!)

Tight needle to thread is a good way to describe the overall tone of the show.  This is a comedy that is about a character who has murdered people for a living, and who continues to murder people as the show goes on.  There are a million ways this could not work.  The show has to move from moments in which we the audience are laughing at what’s happening to moments when we are horrified by what’s happening.  Even more importantly, the show has to get the audience to engage with and want to follow Barry, the main character, despite his many abhorrent actions.  It’s a dazzling magic act that the show is able to balance these elements into a blend that all works and that takes the audience through this wide gamut of different emotions when watching the show.

(While being careful to avoid spoilers, I will say that this balancing act was more difficult in the second season, following Barry’s actions in the final moments of the season one finale.  I had a harder time laughing with the show after it, and Barry, had crossed that line.  Season two explores the ramifications of Barry’s actions, and so we see one of the characters caught in deep grief.  Once the choice to have Barry do what he did in the season one finale was made, I am glad they didn’t run away from that in season two but rather dove into exploring the ripple effects of what Barry did.  This was the right storytelling choice.  At the same time, the scenes of one of the characters mourning were so painful that it made it hard for me to move out of those moments and laugh with the show again.  I still very much enjoyed season two, but looking back at it I do question the choice to go where they did in the season one finale.  On the other hand, bravo to the show from embracing its premise.  This is a show about a hit-man.  Who kills people.  That is a very dark premise.  Perhaps the season one finale wasn’t a mis-step but rather the moment in which the show returned fully to what it had always been.)

Henry Winkler has gotten a lot of praise, and rightly so, for his performance as Gene Cousineau, Barry’s acting teacher and new surrogate father figure.  I adore Gene.  He’s so arrogant and puffed up, and yet he’s so endearingly human and lovable.  We can laugh at Gene, but the show is careful never to turn him into a figure of mockery.  Gene is way too big for his britches, but at the same time, Barry the show shares Gene’s love of the art of acting.  That, for me, is one of the most surprising and interesting aspects of the show.  Barry the show believes, just as Barry the character comes to, in the healing power of acting.  I love that element of the show.  And Mr. Winkler’s nimble comedic performance is central to that.  (Mr. Winkler also, just like Bill Hader as Barry, is called on to go to some deep dramatic places as well, and he just kills it every time.)

It’s been a while since I’ve felt Stephen Root was on a show that gave him a role truly deserving of his talents.  And so I was delighted by what a meaty role he had here as Fuches, Barry’s former “handler” from when he was a hit-man.  I’d feared that Mr. Root might be done on the series at the end of season one, but thankfully he was still central in season two.  He is just endlessly amazing on this show, so funny and at the same time so dangerous.  Also, the running gag of how enormously beat up he would keep getting was never not funny to me.

Sarah Goldberg is terrific as Sally, the acting student with whom Barry first makes a connection, and with whom he eventually falls into a romantic relationship.  As with Gene, Sally is a character who is ridiculous at times, but here too the show is careful to never allow her to become just a one-note joke.  I loved seeing the way season two explored Sally’s past and dug deeper into who she was as a person.

As season two progressed, I think that Anthony Carrigan as NoHo Hank took the prize as my favorite character on the show.  This is perhaps the most loony of all the characters on this sometimes lunatic show; this really shouldn’t work, but Mr. Carrigan is so unusual, so endlessly cheerful and upbeat, even when enmeshed in the most awful or violent circumstances, that I couldn’t help falling in love with this character.

I also loved seeing The Good Place veterans D’Arcy Carden and Kirby Howell-Baptiste as members of Gene’s acting class.  I’d love for future seasons to give them both more to do.  I also have to praise the spectacular work of Paula Newsome as Detective Janice Moss, who was such a tough, smart, and interesting character.

There are so many wonderful comedic and dramatic highlights in these two short (eight-episode) seasons: The moment when Barry (and, simultaneously, we the audience) realize that he has to kill his old military buddy; Barry’s choice to play the “coffee is for closers” scene from Glengarry Glenn Ross in a sweet and helpful way; the near-perfect final line of season one (in which Barry tells himself that his retirement from homicide is “starting… now”); the glorious cliffhanger ending early in season two in which we realize that the hangdog Detective Loach (John Pirruccello) wants to hire Barry rather than arrest him; Barry and Fuches’ escalatingly insane conflict with a silent karate-expert girl in season two’s “Ronny/Lily”; and so much more!

Barry is a very unusual and memorable show.  There are a number of TV series these days that are designed to balance comedy and drama; Barry is one of the best.  It’s a terrific showcase for Bill Hader.  I can understand if the dark places the show explores — and the violence that often ensues — means that it’s not for everyone.  But I’m so glad to have caught up to it, and I can’t wait to see where the series goes in season three.

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