When the main character isn’t shooting people full of lead, he’s making time to take an acting class and find some friends. It’s an unlikely premise, but Bill Hader and Alec Berg managed to fashion the first season of “Barry” into something special. Equal parts hilarious and dark, the show makes you care about the plight of the titular assassin as he tries over and over again to start fresh and find happiness. The end of the first season saw Barry (Hader) finally settle on his new theatrical career, but not without him having to tie up some living loose ends. It could have ended there, a near flawless miniseries that functioned well enough as a unit, but instead “Barry” returned to our screens for a second season. Thankfully, from what the first two episodes have shown, the show hasn’t lost any of its twisted spirit.
When the show picks back up with the aptly named episode “The Show Must Go On, Probably?” things are actually going all right for Barry. He has now had to kill two innocent people to protect his secret, but he’s vowed to fully leave his past behind, focusing on his acting and his girlfriend, Sally. But the people around him are faring differently: Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler) mourns the suspected murder of his girlfriend, Detective Janice Moss (Paula Newsome); Monroe Fuches (Stephen Root) tries unsuccessfully to find a new assassin to replace Barry; NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan) attempts to maintain his place in a new crime family while facing growing hostility from his own; and Sally Reed (Sara Goldberg) faces gender oppression in the acting industry.
Getting to rejoin these characters is immensely entertaining, not just because of their well-written arcs but because of the incredible performances from every single member of the main cast. Hader’s lead performance is wonderful and full of complexity, and Carrigan and Root are also notably stellar as two of the seedier characters. But the real standout is Goldberg’s performance as Sally. Her acting is so earnest and natural that it’s legitimately easy to forget that it’s a performance. In a meta sense, it bolsters the social commentary within the arc of the character, showing just how capable actresses are and how hard they have to work to be taken seriously. Though much of her arc so far this season lies outside Barry’s growing web of deception and murder, it’s arguably just as compelling.
Beyond its great characterization, what makes “Barry” a joy to watch is how it so effortlessly straddles the lines between dark comedy, tragedy and biting social commentary. The prime example and perhaps the standout moment in these first two episodes is when Barry tells his acting class what it was like to kill in the war for the first time. The sequence employs flashbacks, jumping between Barry’s memories of what really happened and his acting peers’ dramatic re-enactment of his monologue. It really hits home for Barry as a tragic anti-hero, yet it’s simultaneously comedic due to the absurdly acted reinterpretation of the event. Twisted moments like this make “Barry” work. It can fall at times toward pure drama or pure comedy but never so far that it can’t quickly reverse direction.
One of the things to be most thankful for is that the show doesn’t seem to be letting go of the unresolved threads from the end of the first season. The writers arguably could have swept Barry’s climactic confrontation with Moss under the rug and moved on, but they stick to their guns of giving Barry’s actions weight and purpose, with far-reaching ramifications. At this point, it’s obvious that the show’s length is finite. As soon as Barry’s acting peers learn the truth about his deadly history, the whole plot will crumble. Even in Barry’s most comedic moments, this tension maintains an uncomfortable presence. To ratchet up the suspense, there’s a surprising twist at the end of the second episode that might catch the viewer off guard and has some serious implications for what will follow. Barry is playing a losing game, but the beginning of the second season proves it’s going to be more than entertaining to watch it all crumble down.
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