By Matt Hanson
HBO’S Barry has finally started to hit its stride as a mirthfully dark comedy/drama.
There’s no doubt that last week’s epic “The Battle of the Long Night” episode of Game of Thrones has been the biggest TV event in a long while. The internet is filled with responses to the epic clash between our heroes of Westeros and the evil White Walkers, and most of them have been very positive. But there’s another HBO show that had the misfortune (?) to follow that memorable showdown with an epic battle of its own. Barry, starring SNL’s Bill Hader as a former Cleveland based hitman trying to break into acting in LA, is halfway through its second season and has finally started to hit its stride as a mirthfully dark comedy/drama. After the amusing manic zaniness of last week’s episode, entitled “ronny/lilly,” all bets regarding to where the show can go are now officially off. Hader won an Emmy for best leading man and HBO has seen fit to renew the series for a third season, so there’s some added momentum.
A little backstory for the unfamiliar will provide some necessary context. Barry Berkman is a former Special Ops Marine who saw some heavy action in Afghanistan. His unexpected pride in being able to kill so efficiently has turned him into a deeply troubled and confused hit man for hire whose emotional stability relies on a mysterious con man named Fuches, played with oily charm by the great Stephen Root (News Radio, Office Space). Barry’s attempt to break free of Fuchs’ manipulative ways brought him to Los Angeles and into an acting class run by the daffy Cousineau, played by none other than Henry Winker, the legendary Fonz grown up as a paunchy self-important Hollywood has-been.
In “ronny/lilly” a reluctant Barry is tasked with taking out a character we’ve never met before. Barry hopes the hit will get him off the hook with an FBI agent who is in pursuit. The episode takes its time introducing the mark, Ronny, an average schlub enjoying a joint while plodding around his living room on an ordinary afternoon. Cunningly, the script doesn’t warn the viewer how much hell is about to break loose. And does it ever! By the end of the episode, Barry has done epically slapstick battle with Ronny, avoiding his expert Tae Kwon Doe moves, accidentally enraging his equally adept preteen daughter Lilly, who proves to be far more dangerous than her dad (at one point Barry laments that she is like some kind of feral mongoose from hell) and who leads the hapless killer on a Tom & Jerry style rampage through a sunny California suburb, a journey that incorporates nun chucks, Corn Nuts, highly incompetent bandaging, and a human gargoyle.
Barry gets a lot of mileage out of juxtaposition, a running gag in which crazed violence explodes amid the show’s laid-back, ultra-groovy LA setting. Barry’s Chechen mafia connection has undergone total Californication; he peppers his ruthlessness with hilariously vapid catchphrases about personal empowerment and ideation. As Barry tries to regroup after getting his ass kicked by a little girl, he finds himself in an equally over-the-top fight sequence in a late-night supermarket that makes the earlier fight sequence seem tame by comparison. Fuches having unexpectedly glued his hands to the steering wheel, Barry has to duck and cover his way out of the new jam, with the mild suburban backdrop blithely humming along.
By the end of the episode, there are dead bodies scattered all over the checkout aisle and Barry finally escapes. Could it be his loyalty to the flippant Fuches is on the outs at last? Almost all the current plot strands are left hanging. Instead of this anarchy suggesting the triumph of sloppy writing or carelessness, the show is rejuvenated by a burst of anything-goes energy that pays off big. I watched the episode with people who loved the show already and others who had never heard of it. Everyone in the room consistently laughed at the same time, which is the best way to tell if a show is hitting its mark.
There is a venerable TV tradition of prominent shows deciding to toss the usual plot lines away for a risky standalone episode. All in the Family has a famous example when Archie accidentally locks himself in the basement and spends the night drunkenly reminiscing over a bottle of vodka. One of the most universally beloved Sopranos episodes features Christopher and Paulie randomly stuck in a van in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens for a night, where the two knuckleheads become increasingly loony and desperate. Now that Barry has created its version of this turning-point episode — and done it so well — it’s exciting to anticipate what can’t be anticipated. There is simply no telling where the show will go next.
Matt Hanson is a critic for The Arts Fuse living outside Boston. His writing has appeared in The Millions, 3QuarksDaily, and Flak Magazine (RIP), where he was a staff writer. He blogs about movies and culture for LoveMoneyClothes. His poetry chapbook was published by Rhinologic Press.