April has become the busiest month of the TV calendar (it’s the sweet spot to release a season of TV that will be both eligible for this year’s Emmys and fresh in voters’ minds when the ballots go out), and among the various 18-show pile-ups of April 2022 are a number of returning series that once upon a time seemed to have no business continuing past a first season. It wasn’t that they were bad, but rather that they were so good — and concluded their seasons on such a strong note — that there only seemed to be downside to continuing.
We already saw this play out last week with the series finale of Killing Eve. Had that show ended after one season, it would be a beloved comet in the night sky, rather than something that just hovered around forever, then landed with a finale that seemed designed to alienate whatever viewers were left. But more often than not, this month is being filled with shows that have defied expectations and proved that there’s more than enough creative life to keep going. We have second seasons of Russian Doll (which we reviewed here) and The Flight Attendant that are more narratively messy than their predecessors, but are also more ambitious and personal in ways that thrillingly compensate. And this weekend brings the long-delayed return of the show to which Killing Eve was often compared during their respective runs: HBO’s Barry, an eclipse-black comedy about a hitman (Bill Hader, who created it with Alec Berg) who decides that what he really wants to do is act.
I had extremely mixed feelings about Barry Season Two, which debuted almost exactly three years ago. The first season was such a deft juggling of farce and tragedy, and the concluding sequence — Barry, on the verge of getting the happy, violence-free ending he feels he’s earned, instead murders the police detective girlfriend of his acting teacher Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler) to protect his true identity — was such a perfect summation of the show’s tones and motifs, that the very idea of a sequel seemed beside the point. And though the second season had some great material, it no longer seemed the graceful balancing act it was earlier. Now it was a bleak but well-acted drama about a guilt-ridden killer, with periodic comic relief from the wonderful Anthony Carrigan as preternaturally upbeat Chechen mobster NoHo Hank — the pieces now clashing rather than complementing. Even the season’s most creatively adventurous installment, “ronny/lilly” — in which Barry and his shady handler Monroe Fuches (Stephen Root) are terrorized and brutally injured by a would-be assassination target and the man’s feral, tae kwon do master daughter — felt like it belonged on a completely different show from all the other pieces. (As a short film, it’s incredible; as a chapter in the story of Season Two, it undercut the emotional reality that Hader, Berg, and company had worked so hard to create for their main character.) It’s not a sin for a great show to become a show with a lot of very good, if conflicting, elements, but it nonetheless felt disappointing after that initial run.
Couple that pre-existing agnosticism with the Covid-lengthened wait for new episodes, and my expectations for Season Three were modest. But, better late than never, Barry more than justifies its existence as an ongoing series with a run of episodes that puts all of the show’s elements back in ridiculous, cruel harmony — and in some cases go beyond anything Hader did in that immaculate first season. Heck, they even retroactively made me like “ronny/lilly” more.
In case you’ve forgotten(*), Season Two ended with Barry and Fuches going to war, with collateral damage that included nearly all of NoHo Hank’s gang and most of their rivals from the Bolivian cartel, along with Fuches telling Gene that it was Barry who murdered Detective Moss. And on the Hollywood end of things, Barry’s girlfriend Sally (Sarah Goldberg) scored big with an acting showcase inspired by an abusive relationship from her past. Season Three picks up well after. Sally is now deep into producing and starring in a streaming drama based on that same relationship. NoHo Hank is enjoying a romantic relationship with a fellow criminal, as well as the opportunity to rebuild the gang without anyone who became aware of his cowardice and general ineptitude before Barry killed them. Fuches is adjusting to changed circumstances as a result of his new alliance with the Chechens, Gene is stewing over the knowledge that his favorite student murdered the love of his life, and Barry has gone back to contract killing for lack of a better idea about his future.
(*) I honestly could barely remember any of this — and still don’t quite recall how Barry and Fuches got this mad at each other — but the plotting on Barry has never been a top-five part of its appeal.
One of the things that makes a show like this so tricky to do over the long haul is that it only works if you take the core idea seriously, but the more seriously you take it, the more you risk it losing the sense of fun that was so crucial to begin with. There are life-and-death consequences to the path Barry has chosen — not just for his victims, but for the survivors like Gene. Ignore the consequences, and the whole thing becomes too lightweight. Emphasize the consequences, and perhaps it becomes way too heavy.
Hader and Berg have leaned very hard into the consequences not just for Barry, but for everyone. And it all fits into the larger topics the show has been discussing from the start, about the very thin line between those who kill on stage or screen and those who kill in real life. There is a level of narcissism and willful emotional blindness, Barry has long argued, to do well in either of Barry’s chosen professions, but the events of this new season make that level of obliviousness impossible. Barry is confronted by the family members of several of his victims. An unexpected uptick in Gene’s career finds him having to reckon with the many, many, many people he pissed off before he became unemployable. (When a showrunner brings up the time he was attacked by Gene while working as a production assistant on Murder She Wrote, Gene admits he needs more detail to remember who this guy is and what he did to him.) Sally discovers that telling your truth — or the self-flattering version of the truth she already performed in the showcase — is hard to do when you are a slave to the streaming algorithm(*).
(*) Through Sally, the series continues to cut into Hollywood’s many ills with laser-like precision. An upcoming episode finds her enduring one inane, soul-destroying question after another during a junket for the new show, while another features Sally’s agent Lindsay (Jessy Hodges) negotiating with a streaming executive almost entirely through grunts and changes in expression.
And by being honest about what the characters have done and whom they’ve hurt, Barry gives itself permission to be funny and awful in the same moment in a way that didn’t happen very often in Season Two. The ridiculous parts are somehow more ridiculous, the darker parts even darker. Strangers get to see Barry lose his temper and recognize him for the danger that he is, rather than the eccentric but mostly benign artist that Sally thinks she knows, and it’s unnerving. Henry Winkler unleashes dramatic depths he hasn’t been asked to display since perhaps before he became Fonzie on Happy Days, and is riveting in those moments, even as Gene retains most of his fundamental silliness. (Winkler even manages to find an amusing way to sit on a couch in a dangerous situation.) As Barry, Fuches, and Hank all find themselves caught between happy endings and continuing on their current paths, their scenes often reach new comic highs. Stephen Root is having an enormous amount of fun as Fuches makes do with various exiles. And where the Looney Tunes level of absurd violence from “ronny/lilly” once felt like Barry was ordering off the menu from an entirely different restaurant, it has now become a welcome regular flavor, with some of the most explosive laughs involving shocking acts of violence playing out in the background of otherwise calm scenes. (There are also some remarkably executed set pieces — like an extended dirt-bike chase that spans both the freeways and L.A. city streets — that would work just fine in a straightforward action story, but have just the right askew sensibility to fit here.)
A series with such a precarious high-concept as Barry should have no business being better in its third season than it was in its first. Yet it is. By the end of the final screener HBO gave critics (the sixth of eight episodes), I could not imagine how the show would attempt to keep the story going for a potential fourth season, let alone beyond that. But I now desperately want to see Hader and friends try.
The third season of Barry premieres April 24 on HBO and HBO Max.