'Barry' Season 2: TV Review

Basically a drama now, which takes some getting used to.
3/31/2019

Bill Hader and Alec Berg's Emmy-winning Hollywood hitman comedy returns for a second season with fewer laughs and more pathos.

The first season of Barry spiraled to a place of such dark inevitability that creators Alec Berg and Bill Hader were left with probably three choices.

The first, however impractical, would have been to decide that Barry, promoted as a fish-out-of-water hitman-in-Hollywood comedy, was just a limited series and was intended to reach a murky conclusion with the main character seemingly committing a horrible act at his mentor's lake house, finding himself unable escape his demons.

The second, much more predictable, would have been to cheat. Jump forward three months or six months. Find the characters in a somewhat healed place, spent at least an episode or two making yuks and then backtrack to fill in the blanks and restore the darkness.

Finally, Berg and Hader could just accept that the place the finale ended was an organic journey for a dramedy that was already a pendulum swinging far more toward bleakness and then keep going from there.

Berg and Hader took the third option and that's why when my basic review of the second Barry season is that the show has become something different and something that's largely unfunny, it's a caution and not a criticism. Through its first three episodes of the season, Barry has simply become a half-hour drama, albeit one with occasional snarky jabs at the entertainment industry and a Chechen mobster with alopecia, but a drama nonetheless. I miss the punchlines, while finding plenty to admire in the show's not-totally-new incarnation.

Spoiling very little, the new season picks up very soon after the turn of events with Barry (Hader) and Detective Janice Moss (Paula Newsome) at Gene Cousineau's (Henry Winkler) lake house. They're still nearing the opening of their production of The Front Page. Gene and the class are distracted by Janice's disappearance. Only Barry is eager to push forward because, as he puts it, "If we cancel the show then what was the point?" As he asks it, it's not just a small question about hours of preparation or even the new life he's desperately trying to will himself to be part of. It's a bigger question about how people who have gone through trauma get out of bed in the morning, how you keep living when there's a gaping void that always threatens to absorb your happiness and that you're perpetually on the verge of falling into.

Barry was always a murky character, and for the better part of the first season his acting ineptitude was the closest Hader came to playing him as a joke. He wasn't exactly a straight man, but he was certainly too caught up in the things he did in Afghanistan and the things he was still doing for Stephen Root's Fuches to drive the show's humor. It's an acting experiment that gets pushed even further in the second season as additional acting exercises force Barry to explore his own memories of how killing became the thing he did best. Acting, the thing he chose because it was supposed to be an escape, turns out to be the thing that forces self-confrontation, which is equal parts psychologically hopeful and nightmarish. I think Hader's performance in the first season benefitted from those brief outlets of deadpan absurdity and exercises in intentionally bad acting, but as with the show's general commitment to enhanced darkness, I admire how locked in he is.

The biggest difference between the first and second season, then, isn't that Barry is more tortured. It's that everybody around him has been pushed to join him there. The series succeeded as a comedy in the first season because there was a grounded and semi-dramatic central performance in an absurd situation and he was surrounded by marvelously comic foils. Most of the lost laughs in the second season are from the comic foils slipping into the void around Barry.

Sarah Goldberg's Sally was amusing because the show treated her self-absorption in terms of how it impacted Barry. She's started plumbing the depths of her previously mentioned troubled first marriage and we're now seeing how the self-absorption impacts Sally and how that's no longer a goof. And Goldberg plays it well.

Winkler's Gene has something similar going on. We started off laughing at the character and his out-of-control ego and then we found ourselves liking him as Janice helped him live for something outside of himself. Living for someone else has consequences and, after the last finale, he's a desperate wreck. There are still asides related to Gene that are funny, but they're mostly sight gags like a "Gene Cousineau is... 12 Angry Men" poster and not the character's sad present. And Winkler plays it well.

Fuches and his fast-talking amorality produced chuckles in the first season, but after the finale's garage shootout, he's now a wreck. And Root plays it well.

The other students in Cousineau's acting class were the biggest and most reliable sources of easy punchlines last season. They've watched Barry take internal inventory and now they want to do the same and that's cut down on their inherent silliness. And actors like D'Arcy Carden, Darrell Britt-Gibson and Kirby Howell-Baptiste play it well.

This puts a lot of pressure on Anthony Carrigan, whose Noho Hank was a fan favorite last season for good reason. As probably the funniest character in a sea of comic relief, his accent-driven malapropisms and celebrity culture obsessions stood out. It feels like there's more of Noho Hank this season — both as a character, whose criminal responsibilities have increased, and for Carrigan, having to maintain wackiness and menace — and it feels like he's being asked to drive the mirth single-handedly at times. It's too much Noho Hank on some levels, yet it's a tribute to Carrigan's wild-eyed, expertly delivered performance that he remains generally likable and occasionally scary.

There are beats in these early episodes in which the darkness nearly becomes more than the show is equipped to handle and there but for the genre-bending touch of directors Hiro Murai and Minkie Spiro, this could slip into being the kind of depression-fueled cable anti-hero drama parodied as Philbert in the most recent season of Bojack Horseman. So far we're on the safe side and there's much to be impressed by in Barry and its shifting identity.

Cast: Bill Hader, Stephen Root, Sarah Goldberg, Anthony Carrigan, Henry Winkler

Creators: Alec Berg and Bill Hader

Airs Sundays at 10:30 p.m. ET/PT on HBO, premiering March 31.