It’s time to have a serious talk about the funniest show I have ever seen.
The second season of HBO’s Barry just wrapped up. Unlike some HBO finales last Sunday night—I won’t point any fingers, just casually mention that they’re out there—pretty much any fan who saw the Barry finale agrees it did not disappoint. Although I’m now a Barry superfan, full disclosure, I wasn’t on board with the series at all when I saw the first trailers. A dark comedy about a hitman who joins an acting class seemed like a perfectly awful sitcom for smarmy meta-humor about hitman movies. Or worse, an excuse for lame gags, like the hitman has to Weekend-at-Bernie’s a corpse, so he pretends to run lines with a dead guy and reassures a concerned passerby that they’re just rehearsing for CSI.
Bouncing back-and-forth between deadpan comedy and surreal storytelling, it was hilarious from the get-go. However, the moment that Barry truly became the Barry that’s worth writing about was in a scene near the end of season 1. It’s the most disturbing murder I’ve ever seen in a film or series, and you never saw a drop of blood. No major spoilers here: the scene showed the moment when Barry (Bill Hader) realizes that he needs to kill an innocent person. The victim figures it out, too. Both parties just quietly sit in denial. Barry doesn’t want to kill an innocent person but knows he must. The victim freezes and doesn’t attempt to escape because doing so will mean the situation is “real.” It was in no way gory but excruciating to watch and so much more unsettling than anything you ever saw on Game of Thrones.
This show is still a comedy, though. I swear!
The big twist of Barry is that it’s not a sitcom. The violence is always shockingly unfunny. Its propulsive narrative actually explores the trauma its characters experience. Never before have I tuned into a comedy series every week because I’m anxious to see what happens next. Barry is the umpteenth series in recent years about a seemingly nice guy who struggles to live a double-life as a violent piece of crap but feels really, really bad about it. Season 1 focused more specifically on hitman Barry’s dilemma and covered a lot of the same territory as Breaking Bad and Dexter. The reasons it didn’t feel like a bad trope were (A) we knew Barry would be a “dark comedy,” sure, but no one knew it’d be this dark and (B) the season 1 finale was so good that a not-insignificant chunk of Barry fans hoped the show would end right then and there.
Breaking Bad and Dexter spent their entire runs wrestling with “Will they ever escape their double-life???” Barry’s season 1 finale had a blunt answer: “No, he won’t.” It probably felt more like the payoff you get in a series finale. A lot of folks figured Barry had written itself into a hole, and that season 2 might just spin its wheels while Barry struggled to balance acting with hitman-ing. Hader (who also writes and directs frequently), writer/producer Emily Heller, and company apparently heard our concerns. Season 2 shifts the focus entirely from Barry’s dilemma to Barry’s very nature. Over and over again in season 2, the series makes a point to undermine any tension that Barry’s double-life will have any repercussions. It’s hard to even call it a “double-life” when the people Barry worries he’ll disappoint—fellow students in his acting class—are too narcissistic to really care about his life.
Season 2 is all about denial. Barry is in denial that he’s a truly bad person. His much more talented acting partner Sally (Sarah Goldberg) is in denial about her past trauma. Acting coach Gene (Henry Winkler) is in denial that he’s a selfish person. Hitman pimp Fuches (Stephen Root) is in denial he’s still Barry’s father figure. Even endlessly lovable gangster NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan) is in denial that he is, indeed, endlessly lovable.
Thanks to Barry not wasting scenes on the usual double-life hijinks, season 2 spends time digging deeper into the supporting characters than I ever expected. None of this comes off as “poor me.” Barry judges its characters harshly, and the bad traits that make them funny usually backfire into the darkest territory imaginable. It’s never for shock value, and none of these characters feel exhausting. Barry earns every moment of its darkness.
Grade = A+