In Season 3, an endearing underdog is morphing into a tragic freak
Apparently everyone told Bill Hader that his career was over after he left Saturday Night Live. It’s not always a guarantee that being on SNL for years will catapult someone to instant stardom, though most comedians would probably give their eye teeth for the chance to find out. Hader has an interesting screen presence; he’s not exactly a dry punchline guy, or an over-the-top wild man. He’s skinny, has sort of a square head, piercing dark eyes, and that nerdy nasal voice which can give him either an unassuming or creepy vibe, depending on the situation.
So it makes sense that his star turn was as the main character in HBO’s unlikely hit show “Barry.” Hader plays Barry Berkman, a glum, grim veteran from Cleveland (perhaps a reference to the ultra-bleak classic noir Blast of Silence) whose time in the Army caused him to discover an unsuspected talent for killing people. Due to the machinations of his mysterious handler Monroe Fuchs, played with oily aplomb by the great Stephen Root, he winds up in sunny LA and finds an unexpected outlet for his aggression and self-loathing in an acting class led by affected also-ran actor Gene Cousineau played by none other than Henry Winkler, the Fonz himself, reveling in his character’s paunchy, washed-up glory.
The premise of “Barry” is kind of absurd, which it knows perfectly well, making a punchline out of it in the first episode. And that willingness to just go with the absurdity of its world keeps the story interesting, hitting the right balance between gleeful slapstick and moral turmoil. Black-clad Barry wanders through blithe southern California with its chirpy wannabe showbiz people. Even the gangsters are goofy, none more perfectly realized than NoHo Hank, a perpetually cheerful bald Chechen mobster who has gone completely native in groovy SoCal. Naïve Hank worries endlessly about people’s personal development, name drops Thomas Friedman, and texts cat memes when it’s time to hire Barry for some grisly wet work.
No spoilers, but the last few seasons have been steadily pushing Barry’s character into a conflict between what he would like to be, which is to pass for whatever normal is in LA, and who he really might be, which is a soulless sociopath. Hader unexpectedly won an Emmy in 2019 (the stunned look on his face says a lot) for best leading actor probably because of his ability to balance between those widely varying character motivations. Hader can be endearing as a natural underdog, and he gives Barry a dark sensibility that he lets surface from time to time.
What “Barry” seems to be posing to the audience is whether or not normalcy and creepiness are really so different after all. The pandemic slowed production considerably, and so the show’s momentum has shifted. After the new season’s first few episodes, it’s clear that the show has radically changed in tone. Barry doesn’t have the same endearing qualities that he did in the early seasons, which is a decision that the show’s creators have every right to make, though it risks the audience’s losing our interest and sympathy.
Barry is slowly finding out how uncannily easy it is for him to pass for just another harmless slacker amid all the self-obsessed Californians, regardless of the fact that he’s been piling up a pretty heavy body count. The show’s biggest insight seems to be that everyone is always performing in some way, whether it’s tormented Barry, blithe Hank, affected Cousineau, or sleazy Fuchs. They’re all performing the versions of themselves that they want the world to see.
This duplicity can equally result in comedy or tragedy, depending on where the story leads, and so far “Barry” has engagingly managed to have it both ways. So far in this season “Barry” is putting its claim to our interest and attention on presenting Barry as a tragic freak, which can still work, but we might lose the playfulness that has thus far gained it a devoted audience. Even if everybody’s just faking it until they make it, Barry and “Barry” included, playing that particular game only works until it doesn’t.