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Barry is the kind of show that succeeds not in spite of the fact that it is so hard to define, but because of it. Barry season 2, which premieres on HBO on Sunday, proves there’s no other show on TV that strikes the same balance of goofy Hollywood satire and black comedy. It’s the rare series that is truly disturbing one second, and gleefully silly the next.
CREATOR: Bill Hader, Alec Berg
STREAMING: HBO Go/HBO Now
Part Hollywood satire, part black comedy, all fantastic character study, ‘Barry’ reigns as HBO’s best current comedy in season 2.
Season 2 picks up with Bill Hader’s hitman-turned-actor, Barry Block (formerly Barry Berkman), cleaning up the mess he left at the end of the previous season. (That’s all that can be said without spoiling anything.) Most of the central cast returns, with Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler) reeling from the disappearance of his girlfriend, Detective Janet Moss (Paula Newsome), and Sally Reed (Sarah Goldberg) continuing her relationship with Barry while clinging to any scraps of showbiz success with all her might. Barry’s former handler, Monroe Fuchs (Stephen Root), struggles in the hitman game without him, while NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan) attempts to pull Barry back into the criminal life when his deal with the Bolivians goes south.
Winkler gets to have some of the most fun of his late career here, Root is solid as always, and Carrigan may be the funniest cold-blooded murderer on television right now. Goldberg, though, gives a truly special performance, walking a fine line between ridiculous and heartbreaking. Her desperate attempts at fame are cringeworthy and pitiful, yet they also feel achingly real.
Barry could easily just make fun of Hollywood, and it often does that effectively. Yet the show has enough empathy for those who toil in obscurity, bouncing from audition to audition, driven to succeed against all odds, that its mocking never comes off as cruel. It’s sad, yes, but it also maintains a contemplative respect for the dreamers who never made it, but kept trying anyway.
Barry is not primarily about those people, though. This is Hader’s show through and through, and it’s something of a character study. Barry is not Dexter. He’s not a psychotic killer, nor does he lack empathy, at least not completely. He’s also not the Jennings from The Americans. He has no great mission. As he explained in the first season, he killed because he was good at it, and it was the one thing he absolutely knew how to do. In season 2, Barry continues to run away from the realization that he has let himself become a monster, even as he’s returned to the origins of how he got this way.
Hader won a much-deserved Emmy for his performance last year, and while he’s great for many reasons, the main one is that we never want to see him do any of the terrible things he does. Much like Walter White on Breaking Bad, Barry is effective because we care about the character enough that it hurts us to see them go down the wrong path. We still want to believe they can change, even if all the evidence points to them being too far gone.
Just as Breaking Bad did for Bryan Cranston, Barry allows Hader to flex his dramatic chops, demonstrating that good comedy and good drama are both built on a foundation of strong characters. Together, Hader and series co-creator Alec Berg strike a tone that’s melancholy without being dour, and absurd without losing its believability. Barry is not like fellow HBO dramedies High Maintenance or Insecure. It’s also not like the network’s broad comedies, such as Curb Your Enthusiasm or Silicon Valley (both of which Berg executive produced). Instead, Barry remains somewhat unclassifiable, other than to classify it as excellent. In season 2, it’s also become HBO’s best comedy running.
Chris Osterndorf is an entertainment reporter and movie critic based in Los Angeles. He holds a degree in cinema from Chicago’s DePaul University. His work has appeared on the Daily Dot, Mic, the Script Lab, Salon, the Week, xoJane, and more.