Right now, I feel like I’m a walking, talking HBO Max recommendation machine. This morning, one of my colleagues was excited to chat about Russian Doll season 2 only for me to confidently say I was watching something equally great (if not much better).
Since I also love Russian Doll, what show deserves this much praise? Well, this series mixes excellent dark comedy with character studies about PTSD and dark secrets. Not only does it star an actor that I didn’t quite peg for “HBO series lead,” but two of his co-stars are turning in career-high performances.
“Oh, no,” I replied, “I binge-watched Barry.” Confused, my coworker asked me to elaborate, as she’d yet to start it. So I thought I’d also share my findings with you, dear reader, so you can understand why Barry shouldn’t be that show you only heard is good without experiencing it first-hand.
After this past weekend, in which I watched both of Barry’s first two seasons (each season is made up of a manageable eight half-hour episodes), I’m sold on Barry as the new show you rave about to friends and family. Basically, it’s my new Severance. Yes, it’s that good. It’s one of those shows that keeps HBO Max at the top of our best streaming services list — right next to, you know, Succession, Euphoria, Our Flag Means Death, The Flight Attendant and all of the great HBO shows.
Why I love Barry so much
Barry Berkman (Bill Hader) is a talented hitman whose kooky boss Monroe Fuches (Stephen Root) keeps getting him into business with sketchy customers. Their relationship is as broken as most work relationships in TV get, and it gives Hader and Root time to show sides of their acting abilities you may not have believed they had. Yes, the guy from Office Space is more than the Swingline stapler swinging Milton. He can be quite a manipulator.
And Fuches’ latest client is NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan), a Chechen mobster who doesn’t really know what he’s doing — but is somewhat confident and incredibly upbeat, nontheless. He’s basically a signature middle-manager who is in a situation that’s far deeper than his skillset should be able to survive.
But that’s just the premise, as Barry is actually just tired of killing people for money. He doesn’t seem to love the money (or ever spend it on himself), and has an unmistakable boredom about it all. Until, that is, he winds up in Los Angeles’ local theater scene in a room of aspiring actors being taught by Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler), whose primarily skill seems to be getting his students angry enough to produce real emotion.
This school of actors — who for some reason perform movie scripts and not stage scripts (when in LA!) — turns out to be the exact place Barry needed to wind up. There, doing research on a target he’s being paid to kill, our protagonist realizes that acting is the career change he’s needed.
Unfortunately, the hitman business is just like all mafias you’ve ever seen on TV or in movies: they keep pulling you back in. Fuches has no intent in letting his prized killer go, and this is where Barry (the show) gets very good. This show is all about acting, as Barry Berkman says his last name to be the most marketable Barry Block, but since he can’t get out so easily, he’s constantly acting like he’s someone he’s not. Unfortunately, his ability to trick these aspiring stars into thinking he’s one of them doesn’t translate to any actual acting chops, as Barry is seen as maybe the worst actor of his class.
This all creates a show fueled around deception, and it’s executed in the best way. Barry has to keep a killing secret from all of his classmates, but falls for one of them: Sally Reed (Sarah Goldberg). She really doesn’t think much of his skills and is so self-absorbed, she just wants someone who will tell her she’s going to make it. But she makes Barry feel good, so you root for their slightly toxic relationship.
Like most shows fueled around lies, the deceptions at the root of Barry have a way of unraveling themselves, especially while the characters become increasingly tired of being told who they are and what their limits are. Sally gets this from auditions, Barry gets it from how Fuches tries to keep him killing and NoHo Hank…well, he’s just peculiarly upbeat.
Why you should binge-watch Barry tonight
I started Barry years ago. I watched the first episode back when I was too distracted to focus, and I didn’t get it or give it a second episode. Then, on Saturday morning (over an iced coffee), I tried again and it all just clicked. By the time I left for a movie in the afternoon, I’d already downed the whole first season. Barry, it turns out, was exactly as good as people had told me. And it was definitely serving of that perfect 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes. (Each season has earned a perfect score, by the way.)
Giving Barry more than just its first episode, I got more of a kick out of its supporting cast. Not only is Winkler doing some of his best work as a theater coach Gene Cousineau, his attempts to woo a detective investigating the death of one of his students is as endearing as it is awkward (especially when Gene makes her an offer she can’t denied).
Barry’s best episode
Sitting there admiring Barry but wondering when it gets really good? Well, I figure you’ll know early on, but there is most certainly one episode I put above all of them. In fact, this episode (season 2, episode 5, “ronny/lily”) became an instant classic for me while I was watching it the other day. The episode is built on a surprising setup — as someone’s learned too much about Barry’s actual job — that sets him onto a rushed mission.
A fantastic example of a hit gone wrong — and one that keeps going wrong — my favorite Barry episode is arguably its version of The Sopranos standout “Pine Barrens.” Nobody gets lost in this episode, mind you, but it sees Barry break some of his rules about a properly planned hit only to discover he’s messed with the wrong family.
Filled with moments that left my jaw on the floor and my sides pained with laughter, “ronny/lily” is a such a good episode that the Barry fans on my Twitter timeline instantly agreed with my assessment of its quality. IMDb’s users agree with me as well, as it’s got the highest single-episode rating (9.8 out of 10) for any Barry episode.
I binge-watched Barry seasons 1 and 2 this weekend because Barry season 3 just began on Sunday night (April 24). Because I’m the kind of person who would live-tweet a TV show, I really enjoy watching a show live as it airs — to share its excellence with friends.
Barry’s season 3 premiere proved to be just as great as the 16 episodes I’ve already seen. NoHo Hank’s got a new partner, so to speak, Sally’s becoming harder than ever to deal with (in a good way) and the big twists involving Barry and Gene are fantastic.
Seriously, folks, watch Barry. You’ll be happy you did. Not that I should try and tell you who you are or how to do things. That doesn’t end quite that well for Barry and company.
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