Critic's Notebook: The Wonderful Wabi-Sabi of 'Barry' and 'Killing Eve'

Barry and Killing Eve Still - Split - Publicity - H 2018
Left, courtesy of HBO, right, courtesy of BBC America

Every so often, there's a show that succeeds despite the standards we have for the short-term greatness of one complete season. That series will stumble along and then, quite out of nowhere and against the odds, become something it either wasn't just a few episodes before, or achieve some creative high-water mark previously unattained, blunting anyone's criticism with a stubborn achievement all its own. Shows like these are ultimate outliers. And, in relatively quick succession, two of them have popped up on the TV landscape recently.

Barry, on HBO, and Killing Eve, on BBC America, are perfect iterations of the imperfect aesthetic of wabi-sabi, the Japanese concept of finding beauty in something that is flawed. They are series that shouldn't work — in fact, often don't work until they inconceivably and almost without explanation do. They are series so out of whack with what their intentions seem to be that they then find some kind of incomparable rhythm of their own. And in that ill-advised misstep, a sense of beauty arrives, definitively.

Call it a weird kind of perfection, with flaws — which is basically the whole concept of wabi-sabi.

As critics, we are often looking for the absolute best execution of every element — writing, acting, direction, pace, story arc, conclusion, resolution, some poetic endnote to everything working just right. 

It happens a lot, which is wonderful. Mostly because we're in this magnificent Platinum Age of Television, where greatness seems to beget greatness — amazing creators push and inspire other amazing creators. Quality not only rises, it expands.

Ah, but there are plenty of lousy shows as well, obviously. And not just junked-up hours or flawed half-hours, repeated endlessly, from networks or cable channels that hardly know the difference between quality and product. No, there's plenty of disappointing fare from prestige outlets as well.

It's not the polarity that challenges critics — it's often as easy to spot greatness as it is to pick out something that reeks of across-the-board incompetence. What's more difficult is evaluating content that achieves 85 percent of 100 percent brilliance. Or the series that has so much impressive ambition it would be nearly impossible to pull off  — and so what to make of it when, alas, it does stumble near the finish line? Those always seem to be a challenge to appraise.

And yet, there's nothing so confounding as a series that ends up in this weird state of wabi-sabi. Both Barry and Killing Eve, perhaps not surprisingly, try to do something tonally very difficult, which is to dabble in maximum violence while also trying to be funny. This is one of the most difficult juxtapositions to pull off. These series want to be light but not too frivolous; at the same time, they want to be darkly dramatic, embracing shocking violence.

To say both fail at getting the balance right is an understatement, particularly in the case of Barry, which stars Bill Hader as an Iraq War veteran who comes home to not much opportunity and is then persuaded by a family friend, played by Stephen Root, to use his skills as an assassin. It's in this particular phase of his life where the dead-eyed, no-nonsense Barry is sent to Los Angeles for a hit and stumbles into the world of wanna-be actors. It's funny — not surprising coming from creators Hader and Alec Berg (Silicon Valley).

Killing Eve is also about a sociopathic assassin, played by Jodie Comer, who has gone undetected on a lengthy killing spree before a mostly underqualified MI5 desk-bound agent, played by Sandra Oh, unmasks her and gets put on her tail. Adapted by writer and actress Phoebe Waller-Bridge from a series of books, Killing Eve wants to be less outright funny than Barry but is shot through with an element of light snark (which Waller-Bridge, of Fleabag fame, is exceptionally good at). In that lightness, Killing Eve also wants to be (oh, God, please no) almost touching, before it then pivots sharply to cold-blooded killing and back again.

What appear to be flaws in Barry pop up immediately as it wants to be broadly sitcom funny, which is a crime of low-bar ambition unto itself, and then — as if the broad strokes weren't enough — it also aims to be ridiculous. That's normally not a problem if you're merely a comedy, but Barry switches herky-jerky to deadly serious, employing chunks of ultraviolence in a bleakly casual way. 

The odds of pulling that trick off are, well, too low to calculate. But for the sake of argument, let's just say that the gold standard comparison is Fargo, which the Coen brothers turned to art in the movie and Noah Hawley inexplicably, and perhaps even with a degree of greater difficulty, adapted for the FX television series, which recently completed its third successful season.

Fargo, both film and TV series, manages the clashing tonal issues of comedy and intense, unflinching violence like nothing else. It is sublimely perfect. More impressive still, it's unrelentingly consistent, episode to episode, season to season. There is mastery in every sequence. So, yes, that's your high bar.

In the course of watching Barry, which very similarly wants to let Hader be both hilarious and haunting as the troubled assassin turned would-be actor, the early results of the first few episodes are so jarringly off-note that it makes you wince. Is it funny? Oh, absolutely. As you watch it, you think, "Yes, more of that comedy — in fact, all of that comedy." But then it flips and becomes not just intense but studiously dramatic, as if different people wrote and directed the second 15 minutes of the half-hour. And not only do they have no idea what silliness preceded their part, the earnestness from everyone involved in the second half would likely shift to anger upon finding out that what preceded their nuanced dramatic depth was not just silly comedy but ludicrous comedy.

It shouldn't work and, in fact, does not work. Except for that weird part when it's over and you start the next one hoping the tone has been fixed but find that it's not, and you start debating whether this would be a better comedy or a better drama — that one element must be killed so the other can flourish. And as you watch Barry, almost like rubber-necking at a car crash, it becomes something completely other in front of your face.

The series definitely becomes, in the final three episodes of the eight-episode season, very much more dramatic than funny. But in that drama there are moments of humor. Has the show finally found its way? Maybe. And yet, despite being less jarring, the effectiveness of the drama is so much more visceral and convincing because it evolved not just from a place of comedy, but a place of absurdist, ridiculous comedy. 

In no world does Barry work, does it stand up to the scrutiny of episode-by-episode dissection. And yet, it absolutely does.That's wabi-sabi. Barry is near perfection from absolute imperfection — something grossly misaligned but oddly, rivetingly holistic.

Killing Eve is a different kind of wabi-sabi, but wabi-sabi nonetheless. Despite being less broadly comedic, it's no less bloody or blunt in its depiction of violence; embracing the sociopathic fallout of the assassin Villanelle, the series wants to fetishize her killing, a step too far for Barry. And in the place of absurdist humor we get, well, a more everyday, relatable kind of humor. The drudgery of the workplace kind of humor. The monotony of a dull marriage kind of humor. That approach draws the viewer in almost too easily for what it then slaps them with. 

Barry wants to make you fall off the couch laughing because Hader and cohorts are hilarious. Killing Eve makes you want to be BFFs with it, because you relate to Oh and her situation. In Barry, he kills people, sometimes lots of people, and it's never once funny. But in Killing Eve, Comer, as the assassin Villanelle, kills people — loads of people — and in the succinct brutality and badassery of it all, Comer is beguiling, sultry, amusingly debauched and likable. 

But she shouldn't be. The audience is groomed to root for Oh, a kind of bumbling underdog who can find personal and professional happiness, even salvation, in besting Villanelle. But it's impossible not to like Comer's Villanelle, who could easily destroy Oh's Eve and make it seem like a meet-cute.

So much of the motivation crashes together, discordantly. It seems more like an accident than a brilliant subversion of a trope; and even if it was, Villanelle is wholeheartedly a sociopath who lacks empathy and Killing Eve is working overtime to make the audience empathize with Eve. At the same time, Eve's story has that lighter ordinariness to it and viewers are lulled into a seemingly different show before Comer's Villanelle jabs a hairpin into the eye socket of an elderly man who bleeds out at the feet of his very young grandson. Sure, the grandfather is a Mafia kingpin, but killing is killing and the stark tonal shifts from Eve's life to Villanelle's day job shouldn't really work. It's like a mistake in both idea and execution, and yet it's intoxicating for what it becomes.

Again, like Barry, this feels like an accident. And that's where the wabi-sabi comes in. But like the best aesthetic part of any object imbued with wabi-sabi, the success comes from not trying to hide the mistake but by highlighting it, embracing it, honoring the shortcoming — which then makes it work.

Barry is definitely more scarred and flawed than Killing Eve, and thus might be more surprisingly effective in its accidental (or not) brilliance. But both are fantastically successful, creatively, even when their shortcomings are so apparent — or maybe because they are. Rarely have two overt examples of the wabi-sabi aesthetic been seen so close together on television. So if you're looking for a kind of imperfect perfection, then both Barry and Killing Eve are calling your name.