John Landgraf, the CEO of FX, once described today’s overwhelming glut of high-quality content on TV (and it’s multitudes of distribution platforms) as “peak television”. And the ascendance of this current golden era is often ascribed to revolutionary hour-long dramas such as The Sopranos, Mad Men, The Wire or Breaking Bad. But while that may be where prestige TV began, the current landscape of artistically ambitious programming appears to be dominated by the compactness and tonal elasticity of the half-hour dramedy.
Pulitzer Prize winner and Vulture TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz dubbed the early iterations of those shows (like Weeds) as “comedies in theory”. And that was because industry practices simply labelled them as comedies due to the presence of humour and their half-hour format, disregarding the fact those series often delivered better dramatic content than their hour-long counterparts. Upon winning the lead comedy actress Emmy for Nurse Jackie, Edie Falco summed it up perfectly when she said, “Thank you. I’m not funny!”
And that trend has continued with critically acclaimed cable offerings like Atlanta, Baskets, Transparent and Louie; alongside streaming’s more difficult-to-define shows like Master of None and BoJack Horseman. These shows exemplified the power of economy when it comes to either comedy or drama, and benefit of concision when it comes to balancing both. Which brings us to the terrific debut season of HBO’s sublimely crafted Barry – the most soul-crushingly harrowing and gut-bustingly hilarious of all the modern dramedies.
Walking the tightrope between serious and uproarious can be narratively precarious, but Barry eschews the high wire entirely, opting to simply fly over any preconceived genre notions that audiences may have. Created by Alec Berg (writer-director of Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Silicon Valley) and Bill Hader, this tale of a Midwestern hitman who pursues an acting career by joining a community theater troupe, is part fish out of water situational comedy, and part unflinchingly dark character study about the emotional toll of murder.
Our titular contract killer first arrives in Los Angeles in the pilot for what should have been a routine assassination. We quickly learn that Barry is a war veteran traumatized by his experiences in Afghanistan, and while he can be unassumingly pleasant on the surface, once the switch flips, his raw intensity can become as frightening as Travis Bickle’s. However things get complicated when Barry follows his target to an acting class, and is inspired by the thespian craft. His decision to switch careers is anything but smooth.
Barry’s acting lessons and immersion into the L.A. scene offers an abundance of physical and organic comedy (the humour is universal, although stage nerds should get a kick out of specific theater jokes), but the real crux of the show is how his growing dedication to his part-time hobby affects his effectiveness at his full-time job. Being a cold-blooded, emotionless shell obviously makes Barry terrible at acting. But as he grows to understand the empathy needed for his craft, the sociopathy that makes killing easy begins to wane.
We’re initially presented with easy escape routes to excuse Barry’s killings (he’s nice, he’s awkward, he has PTSD, etc), but once his past catches up with him, and Barry is forced to do some very violent and very horrible things – you will reconsider all your early impressions of just how likeable Barry really is. Unlike other anti-hero shows, Barry purposefully never forces it’s audience to root for its protagonist, and it’s refreshing to see that Barry’s arc doesn’t shy away from the stomach-churning nature of his innate darkness.
There’s nothing “cool” about his crimes. And just because Barry is breaking good, doesn’t mean that he’s automatically entitled to forgiveness. Bill Hader is one of the most talented comedic actors of our generation, so his natural ability to play for laughs is expected. But what is unexpected is his commanding, tour de force performance on the dramatic side of Barry – playing guilt, despair and desperation with the kind of pathos and gravitas that is sure to make his eventual Emmy nomination a category complication.
The show’s subversion of the anti-hero drama doesn’t just stop there. Even Barry’s love interest Sally Reed (played brilliantly by Sarah Goldberg) is thankfully elevated beyond the tropes of “narrative obstacle” or “manic pixie dream girl who brings light to the sad man”. In fact, Sally’s arc is rich, worthwhile and far more sympathetic than Barry’s. Midway through the season, Sally’s powerful #MeToo storyline manages to shift weighty drama to the theatre side of the show, while letting it’s organized crime aspect carry the funny.
Barry’s supporting cast is uniformly excellent as well, highlighted by outstanding comedic performances from Harry Winkler (a hack acting coach who’s delusions of grandeur are a perpetual delight) and Paula Newsome (a savvy detective investigating Barry’s murders who unexpectedly falls in love with said acting coach). Even smaller recurring roles from Stephen Root, Anthony Carrigan, Glenn Fleshler, and many more, add wonderful depth to key characters that make up both divisions of Barry’s dichotomous life.
Barry’s audacious tonal juggling and remarkable lead performance proves that it belongs alongside genius-level shows like Atlanta and Baskets in terms of active top-tier dramedies. But just in terms of freshman series – Barry is by far the bravest and best new show of 2018 so far.