No show last year walked a trickier tonal tightrope than “Barry.” Bill Hader and Alec Berg’s pitch black comedy about a hitman who wants to be an actor effortlessly mixed harsh drama with hilarious bits. The show won two acting Emmys for Hader’s brilliant lead performance and Henry Winkler’s portrayal of an egotistical acting coach. When it ended its eight-episode run last year, many critics wondered if it should even come back. After all, it ended as a perfect character study, plumbing insanely dark depths before suggesting that Hader’s Barry could never escape his violent past.
I’m here to say that season two not only lives up to the high bar set by the first, but it manages to exceed it in some parts. Hader and Berg, along with their rotating cast of writers and directors, have crafted an excellent season of television as tightly plotted as any hour-long drama, with perfectly wrought characters and award-worthy performances. In a sea of television defined by comedies that don’t really seem to be funny and shows that blur genres, “Barry” stands out among such giants like “Bojack Horseman” for its tight control of tone and ease with which it handles serious topics.
That’s not to say that the show isn’t funny. After all, how could you hire Bill Hader and not expect at least a few laughs? The most frequent generator of them is Anthony Carrigan’s NoHo Hank: a happy-go-lucky Chechen mobster who’s maybe a bit too casual in his line of business. Rounding out the cast are the various students of the class, including “The Good Place’s” D’Arcy Carden and “Killing Eve’s” Kirby Powell-Baptiste, as well as Stephen Root as Barry’s sociopathic mentor.
Elsewhere, the influence of “Atlanta” seeps in to make episode five standout, which breaks from the realistic tone into a more surreal, absurdist fair, yet never becomes jarring. It’s an especially great showcase for Root, already an American treasure for his various appearances in movies and TV as varied as “No Country for Old Men” and “Office Space.”
But my favorite story arc of all belongs to Sarah Goldberg’s Sally. Introduced as the object of Barry’s affections (and the reason he joins the class,) she spent most of the season in the self-absorbed whims of a struggling actor, before finally ending up with Barry. Her career starts to gain small bits of traction throughout the new season, and the center of her storyline is a personal writing exercise dealing with her abusive ex-husband. You can tell women have a heavy presence on the staff (among them comedian Emily Heller, who writes and produces) as Sally turns into a complex, utterly human character struggling to work through her feelings of weakness and whether to write the truth of her experiences. The highlight of this is a monologue in the back half, as she tears into her lingering feelings of jealousy over Barry getting an audition sooner than she has, while also wanting to be supportive. It’s a messy piece, but Goldberg and the writers make it work to perfection.
More than anything, “Barry” displays great confidence from the entire creative team. It’s tightly crafted and fully in charge of its tone, never letting the violence become anything other than horrifying even as it punctuates it with small jokes. It evolves itself out of the standard anti-hero shows that dominate cable and premium channels in the wake of “Breaking Bad,” all the while plumbing the question of whether we should even be rooting for Barry anymore. Hader and Berg seem to be grasping for greater themes as they delve into Barry’s military history and the darkness within him, and I’m excited to see where they go. “Barry” is the result of a creative team stretching their boundaries and a leading man willing to push himself to the edge. Here’s to hoping that streak continues into the third season.