A hitman who takes up theatre may seem an unlikely heir to Walter White. But both shows provide gripping glimpses into humanity’s dark corners
03 April 2019 | Jack Seale | The Guardian
Everything’s a dry, deadpan half-hour dramedy now, and that includes the show that might just be the the new Breaking Bad.
Barry, Bill Hader and Alec Berg’s dark HBO comedy, concerns a hitman (Hader) who is hired to kill a member of an acting workshop, but then joins the group and takes up amateur dramatics himself.
Tempted to give up killing for theatrical performance, Barry ends up leading a dangerous double life, implicating his new pals in an organised-crime turf war and attendant police investigation. Surely he’ll soon be rumbled?
The first episode of the new second season confirms what we learned from last year’s superb first run.
Barry operates as a comedy rather than a thriller, but it replicates a lot of what made Breaking Bad irresistible: here is an irredeemable, but never quite despicable, protagonist who is deceiving everyone around him about his true nature, and about the fact that the monster whose identity is a regular topic of conversation is, in fact, him.
Being discovered is a permanent threat, leading Barry, like Walter White before him, deeper and deeper into the abyss, committing increasingly heinous acts to stay alive. Down we go with him, propelled by an addictive sense of gnawing dread as the situation spirals ever further out of control and the potential fallout intensifies.
A hiply droll comedic half-hour can’t match Breaking Bad for the sweep of the drama or the menace of the bad guys. Barry has none of that show’s political subtext observing how, in America, ordinary people are not materially rewarded for remaining good and are disproportionately punished for contravening the law.
In Barry, people’s failures are less to do with the brutal unfairness of society and more a result of them being hopeless berks. That’s a far lighter theme, but much of the “perennially imperilled antihero” format lends itself to comedy.
The show constantly slaps us with cathartic bathos, switching from bloody violence to the light relief of Henry Winkler’s majestically overripe drama teacher, Gene M Cousineau, telling his students to take “a tight five”, or one of the talentless thespians forgetting his line halfway between “Alas” and “poor Yorick”. That release of tension is a shortcut to laughs that never stops working.
You get the same strong suspicion you had during Breaking Bad – and which was subsequently more or less confirmed by showrunner Vince Gilligan – that the writers haven’t the first idea how they’ll get out of each narrative corner they back themselves into.
This matters less in a comedy; it’s not as aggravating if the scripts pull something silly to stop the story flying off the rails.
Additionally, Breaking Bad’s recurring problem with supporting characters who don’t get much of a look-in and often have to act implausibly to keep the plot careering forward is solved: Barry is populated by cartoonish figures who are too successful at doing their very funny thing – NoHo Hank, the flippant Chechen crime lord played by breakout star Anthony Corrigan, is the best of the series’ numerous scene-stealers – to worry about dramatic consistency.
Yet Barry has fine character-drama chops beneath its outrageously colourful surface. Hader’s titular assassin is an upsettingly alluring creation, a man almost devoid of sentiment who is drawn to acting not so much because it taps into inner feelings he can’t express, but because it might create some feelings that are healthier than feeling satisfied by a skilfully executed murder.
In its portrayal of a masculinity that’s aware of its own near-psychopathic levels of emotional detachment, Barry recalls another sinfully bingeworthy drama: Dexter. The comparison’s underlined by love interest Sally, played by Sarah Goldberg, who is so self-absorbed she consistently mistakes Barry’s blank neutrality for calm dependability, just as Dexter’s friends and colleagues did.
Like Dexter or Walter, one day Barry will edge into a scrape he can’t shoot his way out of and, when he does, he’ll probably be guilty of so many awful transgressions that we’ll be relieved to let him go. For now, though, he’s fascinating and funny enough to deserve several more years on the run.