There was a glorious moment in television about five years ago, when it seemed like the medium was on the verge of another evolutionary breakthrough. Shows like American Horror Story, True Detective and Fargo suggested the birth of a new form, the anthology miniseries. It would neatly split the advantages of television and film, really digging into the characters and the story without overstaying its welcome, and it would be more financially viable than the traditional miniseries, because it would return year after year, just with a new setting. This seemed optimal at a time when many shows (dramas in particular) were becoming increasingly high-concept, and simply weren’t built to keep coming back season after season with the same cast of characters.
That particular revolution never quite materialized though. Most of the anthology miniseries that are around now are the same ones from circa 2014. And there are increasing gaps between their seasons as the creative team struggles to come up with a brand new idea as good as the last one. Instead the opposite has happened: Shows that seem clearly built to last only one season keep being renewed because they’re too popular to cancel. Even crazier, projects like Big Little Lies, explicitly planned as standalone miniseries, have become ongoing. Add the wave of revivals of series that had definitive conclusions years or even decades ago (new Mad About You, coming soon, but only if you’re a Charter subscriber!) and we’ve entered a strange new period where no story is ever allowed to end, even when it probably should.
Over the next few weeks, we’re going to get a pair of sophomore seasons that seemed at least somewhat questionable a year ago — both, coincidentally, dramedies about unconventional assassins. BBC America’s Killing Eve is back in mid-April, while Barry returns to HBO on March 31st. Both share not only a basic subject but a high-wire balance of tones. In Season One, they took their killers’ professions very seriously, yet managed to weave macabre laughs and satire around all the bodies that kept dropping. Each endeavor was so precarious, nobody would have blamed their respective creative teams for announcing they had told their story and were ready to try something a bit saner.
Killing Eve at least ended on a cliffhanger, which provides a direction for the upcoming second season (but also creates some problems, which we can talk about in a few weeks). Barry, on the other hand, concluded on a note that couldn’t have been more perfect for the series’ plot and its themes: The title character, a hitman-turned-actor played by SNL alum Bill Hader, has found peace and enlightenment in his new profession, and very reluctantly murders the one cop, Janice Moss, who has figured out his secret. Had the last scene of the series been the darkly comic one where Barry tells himself that his retirement from homicide is “starting… now,” it would have been one of the great finales of the last decade. The show had thoroughly explored the thin line between killing on stage and killing in real life, had examined Barry’s messy interior life, and it managed to close on tears and laughs within moments of each other. A performer as naturally talented as Barry turned out to be might have opted to take a bow after that and leave the stage to wild applause.
Instead, Barry co-creators Hader and Alec Berg have returned to this world, and the unpleasant place in which Barry finds himself after killing Detective Moss. You can’t blame Hader for his reluctance to say goodbye to a career-redefining role. And it’s to both creators’ credit that the first three episodes of the new season do not shy away from the impact of how the previous one ended. But the result is a very different series — one that no longer keeps its dark and light sides in harmony, but gives itself over almost entirely to drama.
Now, the dramatic half of Barry was the more exciting half of Season One. The Hollywood satire aspects of the series were well-executed but familiar. The joke of the hitman trying to do Shakespeare might have quickly grown thin without the emotional grounding Hader’s remarkable performance provided. It was in those raw and honest moments — particularly the scene where Barry realized he would have to murder a buddy from the Marines who was threatening to go to the cops — that the series felt truly special. It makes sense to lean into the drama because it’s what the show did best, and also because Moss’ death unquestionably makes things far more serious for both Barry and his acting teacher Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler), who was dating Moss.
Hader and Winkler both won Emmys for their Season One work, and Moss links their characters in such a way that Season Two almost feels like a double act rather than the solo vehicle Barry used to be(*). We see both men struggling with their grief and/or guilt: Barry by throwing himself even deeper into Gene’s class, Gene by pushing his actors to explore more painful material, and by a fumbling attempt to reconnect with his estranged son.
(*) A bit lost in the shuffle, at least early on, is Sarah Goldberg as Barry’s girlfriend Sally, who was teacher’s pet in Gene’s class before Barry was. The new episodes try to use her focus on her career as a comic contrast to Barry’s inner turmoil, but she starts to feel like the one supporting character on a comic book show who still hasn’t learned the superhero’s secret identity, and seems besides the point as a result.
This is good material — particularly as their respective grieving processes clash and Gene forces Barry to confront traumatic details about his military service — and both actors are up to the task. But that precarious, at times awe-inspiring Season One balance between pathos and pratfalls is gone. Nearly all the laughs in the new season come courtesy of Anthony Carrigan as Noho Hank, Barry’s gregarious contact in the local Chechen mob. Hank’s childlike joy at being a criminal remains a delight, but now it feels like he keeps wandering over from a more straightforward sitcom to add some levity to Barry’s increasingly sad story. In Season One, the drama made the gags involving Hank, Gene, Barry’s handler Fuchs (Stephen Root) and others feel even stronger for the relief they provided. And, in turn, the heavy moments hit even harder because they were coming in the midst of abundant silliness. Now, everything feels separate and less effective.
Certain plot developments early in the season suggest that Hader and Berg may still be playing a short game, if not as short as might be ideal. And the first season improved enough as it went along that this new batch could show a similar growth curve once we’ve grown accustomed to the shift in tone. Individual moments are still often strong, even if the pieces don’t fit together as neatly as before.
But there’s a storyline running through the first episode, about Barry’s attempt to stage a production of The Front Page without the help of the mourning Gene, that feels like it’s calling attention to this question of whether Barry should have continued. Sally and the other actors in the class are understandably wary about the show going on without their usual director. Barry, realizing that he killed Moss largely to maintain his new life as an actor, asks, “If we cancel the show, then what was the point?”
For Barry, cancellation would make Moss’ death even more tragic. For Barry, ending the show might have spared everyone even more grief.