‘Underrated’ is a term thrown around rather hastily these days: but I mean it. The HBO show Barry is absolutely underrated – at least here in the UK. Admittedly, when its first season aired in the spring of 2018, I didn’t catch wind of its brilliance straight away. Yet, after binge-watching both seasons in quick succession back in Michaelmas, I haven’t shut up about the show since.
Barry follows the misadventures of its titular character (played by Bill Hader), a talented hitman with serious misgivings about his violent career path. Stumbling upon an amateur LA acting class, Barry discovers a new passion for performing as he longs for a more fulfilling sense of direction in his own life. Undercutting this is a mysterious history in the military, which evidently takes a toll on Barry’s fragile psychological state and his relationship with rage and aggression. It’s an unconventional premise and one that allows Barry’s balance as a dramedy to flourish.
The show is simultaneously hilarious and devastating. It possesses the true markings of a modern-day tragicomedy, skilfully leaning into its moments of absurdity before plunging into darker themes. And, in and amongst the murderous chaos that dominates the first season, it is fitting that Barry’s acting class settles on Shakespeare’s Macbeth as part of their annual showcase. We watch as Barry grapples with his ethical instincts, refusing to acknowledge his own murderous hand while struggling under the poisonous influence of his ‘co-worker’ Fuches (Stephen Root) who has groomed the protagonist into the hitman he is today. One might even argue that Fuches himself is an unconventional Lady Macbeth figure. In this case, however, Barry’s hamartia is not his ambition, but his naivety in believing that one’s past mistakes can be wiped from existence.
As audiences, we are naturally mesmerised by these solemn transformations; our previous perceptions of these actors are suddenly melted away, and the shadow of expectant laughter lingers eerily in the air.
A particular strength of Barry is its hurling of comedic actors into dramatic roles, a casting call which always makes for impressive viewing. One can consider the likes of Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting, Steve Carrell in Little Miss Sunshine, or Whoopi Goldberg in The Colour Purple. As audiences, we are naturally mesmerised by these solemn transformations; our previous perceptions of these actors are suddenly melted away, and the shadow of expectant laughter lingers eerily in the air. Leading man Bill Hader has steadily shaped a career of considerable comedic prowess, starring in a number of films such as Superbad, Trainwreck, Tropic Thunder and Hot Rod alongside an impressive run on Saturday Night Live. And yet, watching his dramatic performance in Barry, it’s no wonder the actor nabbed the Best Actor Emmy for two years in a row. Hader is on top form in this role, his experience and talent adding a powerful emotional weight to a show whose premise risks reading more silly than surreal.
Barry’s classmates make similarly hilarious viewing, perfecting that great-actors-pretending-to-be-terrible-actors gag.
Of course, there’s still plenty of laughs, and the supporting cast is excellent at evoking this. Standouts include Barry’s self-obsessed acting coach Gene Cousineau portrayed by comedy heavyweight Henry Winkler, and cuddly Chechen mobster NoHo Hank, played by Anthony Carrigan.Barry’s classmates make similarly hilarious viewing, perfecting that great-actors-pretending-to-be-terrible-actors gag. From Cousineau’s long-winded anecdotes and shameless celebrity name-dropping, to Hank’s cheery quips about self-help books, these comedic roles provide the much-needed release of tension in a show whose themes can quickly feel heavy. And yet, it is also these light-hearted moments that make the eventual tragedies all the more emotionally impactful.
Practically, Barry is also perfect for those, like me, who possess a questionably short attention span.
Aside from fantastic performances, Barry is visually stunning. The show is styled in the usual HBO aesthetic – stylish camera shots and fluorescent lighting galore – which altogether mount the tension of Barry’s perilous moral dilemma to a cinematic high. Practically, Barry is also perfect for those, like me, who possess a questionably short attention span. For all its chaos, the show succinctly slots itself into 30-minute episodes. Why do other modern dramas insist on 50+ minute episodes these days? This is a show that refuses to stretch itself beyond its limit or fall victim to lulls and uninteresting subplots, and it is brilliant!
All in all, HBO once again demonstrates with Barry its dominance as the standard for drama in modern television. We’ve seen how fellow HBO shows such as Succession and Euphoria have amassed monumental followings. I, for one, hope Barry follows their footsteps to fame as it returns for its third season, planned for release later in 2022.