In the oft-overlapping world of prestige TV, a common solution to the sophomore slump is to go darker. Some programs take this literally, like “Ozark” with its muddy visual template, while others lean into the more painful themes from Season 1, like “13 Reasons Why” and its redundant circling of teen suicide. After all, one of the best ways to hide a bad case of writers’ block — or otherwise mask the qualitative decline of a formerly strong show — is to make it hard to watch. Who would dare criticize something so bold, so important, so sad?
Well, “Barry” Season 2 is harder to watch. It’s darker, more intense, and seems to tick off many of the warning signs listed above. Yet just as its original premise is the kind of pitch that shouldn’t play — but does, and does oh so very well — so too is its second season a brilliant paradox. For every step co-creators Alec Berg and Bill Hader take deeper into Barry’s haunted past, the growing shadows only provide sharper edges for the HBO series’ cutting comedy. If “Barry” played it safe during parts of Season 1, it’s not anymore. The darkness and light play perfectly off each other, creating yet another fascinating and hilarious season, and one determined to be true to its own twisted identity.
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So far, “Barry” gives every indication it will slide further and further into the daunting corners of its lead character’s psyche, as the first three episodes force the hitman-turned-actor to confront long-repressed sides of himself. Barry (Hader), who may have earned the nickname “Baz” during the break (captions will have to confirm the mumbly dialogue) has made a few key changes to distance himself from his old life. He’s not accepting contract gigs anymore. Instead, he’s working for lululemon alongside his acting class friend, Sasha (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), hocking stretchy pants and branded hats while practicing his accent work.
Speaking of, he’s doubled down on acting, throwing himself wholeheartedly into the class and preparing a show with his fellow thespians-in-training. Barry’s even taken on a bit of a leadership role in the studio. He’s far less timid and much more confidant, on stage and off. There’s only one problem: Gene (Henry Winkler) doesn’t feel like teaching anymore; not since his girlfriend Janice (Paula Newsome) went missing. The police aren’t exactly giving up, but the charismatic acting instructor sure seems to be, and his whole class is down in the dumps because of it.
What’s a killer to do? Barry, having lived around death most of his adult life, is unfazed by Moss’ disappearance and Gene’s heartache, even though he’s ultimately responsible for both. Hader and Berg dodge the details of what happened after that Season 1 cliffhanger, when Barry and Janice exchanged gunfire and only the hitman returned to Gene’s cabin in the woods. But their fuzzy details aren’t for fear of engagement: Barry’s avoidance can only last so long — of Janice, of NoHo Hank (breakout Anthony Carrigan), of his past — and the initial Season 2 episodes find internal and external forces demanding the assassin to recognize his true feelings about his past. What is it about Barry that led him to turn to killing in the first place?
On the one hand, he’s got his innocent-to-the-point-of-oblivious fellow actors. Their detachment from reality is captured in Barry’s new roommates casually ignoring their debts to Barry’s girlfriend, Sally (Sarah Goldberg), only playing the part of a partner instead of actually being one. She can’t see the difference, but Barry is starting to notice. Meanwhile, he’s got a slew of Chechen mobsters held off only by Hank’s word. They deal in extreme consequences, life or death, and don’t bother with the small stuff. If Barry pisses off his roommates, they might passive aggressively pout. If he pisses off Hank, he might get killed.
Stuck between these worlds — or, more specifically, wanting one while refusing to acknowledge he’s more at home in the other — Barry is a gripping character to study. He can easily recognize right and wrong, but as Gene drives him to “find his truth,” Barry edges toward accepting some very dark shit. The laughs come in fierce bursts of tension-popping one-liners and silly, unexpected transitions. “Barry” is deft at finding the right moments for jokes, and it’s amazing how many they’re able to pepper in through the well-rounded cast.
As far as black comedies go, the concept of finding big laughs in tough situations is nothing new: The most biting gags often grow from the gloomiest corners of the soul, but what Hader and Berg are doing with “Barry” isn’t focused on sharpening their fangs; they’re not setting up laughs through Barry’s descent, so much as they’re using them to coax us into analyzing one of television’s more challenging perspectives. Their interest lies in their lead, and so does the audience’s. Barry Berkman is on the verge of becoming the next Walter White, and “Barry” could very well go the “Breaking Bad” route if it wants to — that’s how dark the series is getting, and it’s not a front. It’s really, really good. Get ready.
“Barry” Season 2 premieres Sunday, March 31 at 10 p.m. ET on HBO.