Critic's Notebook: On HBO's 'Barry' and Its Jaw-Dropping Mix of Darkness and Hilarity

When the first season of Barry premiered on HBO in March of last year, it was a series that I struggled to explain critically, even though I loved it. That may sound odd — you love a show or you like it or you loathe it or it inspires at most a shoulder shrug, but you don't often love it and then struggle to explain why. But in the case of Barry, the story of a damaged war veteran turned assassin who inadvertently finds a community inside an acting class (he got there while on a hit), it was a show attempting to pull off one of the most difficult of creative tasks — to be very, very funny while also being very, very bleak.

And so my first season review noted, with possibly some irritated amusement to co-creator Alec Berg, that it worked despite the fact that it probably shouldn't and that, hell, maybe it was an accidental slice of brilliance. Berg (Silicon Valley) is a funny guy and on a couple of occasions he's let me know, rather humorously, that he hasn't forgotten my weirdly backhanded compliment (which wasn't really meant to be that, but it definitely came off that way in retrospect).

As someone who absolutely adores FX's Fargo series — all three seasons of it so far — I'm clearly attracted to shows that attempt to mix comedy with violence, a tonal nightmare for most creators to pull off. I finished watching that first season of Barry with my jaw basically hanging open for the last two episodes. It had taken such a seriously dark turn that, despite earlier very clear moments of stark drama and high emotional stakes, most of the audience probably still wasn't ready for the feeling it left them with as it ended.

Now, to understand how co-creator and star Bill Hader, along with Berg, had pulled off this eight-episode tour-de-whatever, it's helpful to know that they had employed Henry Winkler in a wonderfully amusing role as the egotistical acting teacher Gene Cousineau, which Winkler absolutely nailed, taking home an Emmy for his efforts. Simultaneously, Hader and Berg used Anthony Carrigan as "a ridiculously over-the-top" (as I wrote) Chechen mobster named NoHo Hank. This is all important to understand because, to my critical mind at the time, NoHo Hank felt straight out of a broadcast network sitcom — meaning very broad — while Winkler's Gene Cousineau was a slightly more grounded send-up of the stereotypical, meritlessly pompous acting coach. But when you put them together with Hader's depressed war vet and his often very violent killings, things were so jarring it felt like a tooth might come out of my head.

For comparison's sake, Killing Eve works with almost this same set of tools (also successfully) but I would argue that Barry was much darker and its humor (particularly with NoHo Hank) much broader and thus there was less room for error in the equation. I really like Killing Eve (and the two episodes BBC America and AMC made available for review as it recently entered its sophomore season continued the infectious cocktail), but Barry is a much different and more volatile animal.

Any TV series that can make me think that much about its intent and execution — and Barry did that up to and beyond its season finale — is a welcome gift for a critic.

For season two, fellow THR critic Dan Fienberg did the reviewing duties, but I recently went and binged through all six of the episodes HBO has now made available to critics — four have aired — and I'm kind of fascinated that, at least for the biggest chunk of this sophomore season, Berg and Hader seem to be leaning into the darker side of Barry Berkman/Block, the assassin and would-be actor.

I looked back at my notes and "dark" was used a lot. 

Any series in its second season will run up against growing pains, but I like how Barry is attempting to deal with the fallout from the season one finale, which affects Gene, Barry and Barry's handler, Monroe Fuches (Stephen Root), plus Det. Loach (John Pirruccello). Instead of racing to change the mood, grief is in the air. And, of course, Barry struggles with how to relate to the concept of grief — as an assassin, he blocks it out because killing is just part of the job, but as a person for whom the acting classes are making him feel something for once, he's trying to distance himself from who that "other" person is and what he's done, so the grief and regret pour in. That's the basic premise of Barry and where we find ourselves as an audience in season two.

There's a scene where Gene tells Barry to get in touch with his inherent darkness and Barry reflexively and with some degree of hurt says, "It's not inherent." To which Gene says, "Trust me, that is exactly what it is and it is dark!"

But here's the thing — dark is good. To my eye, the comedy isn't trying to be 60 percent of the equation anymore. It's trying to be, rough guess, about 35 percent. This makes me welcome NoHo Hank probably a little more, plus a lot of the other absurdities that Berg and Hader are so adept at inserting into the series (a whole bit about the Chechen mobsters not needing an English translator is so simple and yet so effective, it got the handful of laughs it was seeking every time). 

I'm sure once Gene emerges from his grief a bit more his comic moments will also be more frequent. I'm fine with that as well, even if that tips the scales back into that more dangerous tonal balance that Berg and Hader pushed, um, not-accidentally, in season one.

Relying on the darker side of Barry is enjoyable on another level, however, one that starts to set the show apart not just as having pulled off something of a miracle last season, but one that maybe needs to get more credit for its dramatic chops, particularly those from Hader.

And here's the thing I'm learning after another six (of eight) Barry episodes so far, fully cognizant that last season it went pitch black on those final two episodes: It carries its extra weight quite well. I'm impressed by how it is working to deepen its dramatic intent. Maybe I just like that balance better — I think both FX's Fargo and something like HBO's Succession are fundamentally dramas that infuse themselves with comedy and Barry could be in very welcome company if it keeps going in the more serious vein.

That said, let me upend most of this column by saying that the upcoming Ep. 5. "ronny/lily" — written by Hader and Berg and directed by Hader — is absolutely batshit crazy and achieved a level of sublime humor I haven't seen on TV in ages. I laughed long, hard and very appreciatively at the madness they were attempting and then pulled off.

Can I just say that there's no way that episode should have worked but does? No, probably shouldn't go there. But it's my favorite Barry episode so far and if it signals yet another tonal shift, I'm in.