Last year Bill Hader‘s HBO series Barry tricked all of us (me included) into thinking it would be a fun, offbeat, dark comedy. And it was, at least somewhat, to the bitter end. It was incredibly funny, in fact. But the darkness, when it came, came on much stronger than anyone anticipated, and the result was one of the best and most powerful surprises of 2018.
Now Barry is back with a second season, and it’s starting strongly… if a little more settled in its ways.
After you pull the rug out from your audience once, it’s hard to do it again. And the show doesn’t appear to be trying. (To be fair, the whole season hasn’t been released to critics yet, so there might still be something big in store). For now, Hader’s title character is less funny and more desperate, damaged, and trying very hard to hold onto the normal life he’s made for himself, whatever the cost.
But that’s becoming much harder to do, and that’s the source of the season’s greatest difference. Last year a lot of the drama (as well as a lot of the comedy) came from Barry’s struggle to keep his two worlds separate. He made the concerted decision to leave behind the world of organized crime and killing and to join the world of aspiring Hollywood actors and supportive girlfriends.
This year, those two worlds are starting to collide, as his acting class shifts its focus to autobiographical monologues, encouraging him to use his means of escape (acting) as therapy for the very thing he’s trying to escape (killing). Barry inadvertently brings this on himself, in a desperate grab to keep the class from falling apart, and it’s fascinating to see him struggle with the consequences.
Because not only is Barry hesitant to dredge up his darkness, his classmates are all too willing.
It’s a continuation, in a way, of last year’s finest episode, “Loud, Fast, and Keep Going,” in which Barry’s torment over having murdered an innocent friend finally put him in the right mindset to be a good actor… or at least to deliver a single line of Macbeth really, really well. “Whatever you did tonight to get to that place, that’s your new process, okay? All you have to do is do that every time,” Sally told him after that performance.
Sally didn’t know what Barry’s process was then, but this season leads you to wonder if her advice would have been any different if she had.
Barry, meanwhile, struggles to keep his own darkness at bay while he becomes more and more disenchanted with his classmates’ casual enthusiasm for finding their own. It’s an interesting direction for the show to take, but a wholly logical one. The greatest danger of Barry’s other life is no longer in the Chechen mob. It’s in his own mind.
Thankfully, however, the Chechen mob is still in play. The show is still disarmingly funny, and now that we’ve seen the emotionally devastating depths it’s willing to plunge to, it’s all the more disarming. And while Barry is getting darker, there’s still a wealth of comedic gold to be found in Anthony Carrigan‘s NoHo Hank, whose confident and earnest brand of adorableness remains unparalleled. Hank’s got his own problems this season, and every scene with him on screen is a joy.
Barry is still excellent. Having already revealed itself as more shockingly violent and emotionally devastating than your garden variety comedy, it seems to have settled more comfortably into that identity. But there’s nothing at all wrong with that. The name of the game this year is delving into Barry’s dark and violent past and wondering what monsters we’ll find there, all while executing expertly timed, unabashedly comedic moments in a bizarre but effective balancing act.
I could watch Bill Hader dig hesitantly into his psyche and Anthony Carrigan gush about self-help books forever. Thanks to Barry, we all can.
Barry premieres Sunday, March 31st at 10 pm ET/PT) on HBO.