WARNING: very mild spoilers for both seasons of Barry.
It’s funny, the weird paths TV shows can weave. In their own way, they are living organisms of their own, evolving and growing as cast members and directors and showrunners come and go. What starts out as one type of show can veer quickly into another before you even know it.
During its stellar first season, HBO’s Barry was almost more premise than show. Starring Bill Hader as an ex-hitman turned (terrible) actor, it was equal parts comedy showcase and weird, therapeutic exercise for the former SNL star. If you view the show’s premise as an exceptionally talented man being stuck in a job he’s extremely good at but hates doing taking a risk on something new that he’s not at all prepared for, Barry exists as a sort of metacommentary on both itself and the career of its star.
Throughout the first season, Barry’s newfound independence from his seething, diabolical handler Fuches (the ever terrific Stephen Root), brings him into the orbit of a strange motley crew of your usual LA personalities: a failed acting coach (Henry Winkler), his troupe of exceptionally shitty actors led by Sally (Sarah Goldberg), and a crew of Chechen mobsters, led by the effervescent and extremely lovable NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan). It was a great show; funny, sometimes breathtakingly tense, and the increasingly rare anti-hero show that categorically and definitively says that its main character is bad and evil and should not be forgiven or emulated, without becoming completely myopic and hopeless. Really, it was a showcase for Hader, cemented by his Emmy win for Best Leading Actor in a Comedy.
Then, Season 2 happened. Without spoiling, the first season ended on a note that made Barry ever approaching anything resembling redemption seem even more impossible. So, when Season 2 began, it made sense to find him simply putting his head down and trying to persevere in his job and his relationship with Sally. Denial is a weapon, and Barry the character wielded it as well as he ever used any weapon. But where the season went after that was so wild, so dark and so unpredictable that before too long, I realized that the show had become something I never really thought we would get in our lifetimes: a true Breaking Bad successor.
Better Call Saul, for as great as it is (and I think it’s better than either Barry or BrBa), was by necessity a different animal. More methodical, more structured, more rewarding to keen-eyed viewers and mechanistic moralities. Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould weren’t really interested in copying their own stuff, and so Saul went off in another direction. Barry, on the other hand, came about the comparison organically. I don’t think Hader, co-creator Alec Berg or any of the writers ever said “hey, let’s just do Breaking Bad,” but that’s more or less what they’ve done. Look at it this way: a kooky, high concept premise centered around a previously doofy character actor plumbing surprisingly darkness and shocking violence. A female lead who overcomes some purposefully annoying writing to anchor her own entire half of the show. A collection of gritty character actors equal parts funny and tragic. And — most importantly — chaotic, unpredictable plotting that seems to just go wherever it wants and kill whoever it wants to without repercussion.
There is a God at the dark heart of Barry the show. And like the God of Breaking Bad, it seeks only to punish its protagonist. Every time this season that it seemed as though Barry was going to escape his past and move on (or alternatively, finally get arrested), the universe shifts and transforms around him to keep him free and clear yet again. On a lesser show (like, say, Dexter), this would come off as bad writing, but Hader and Berg seem to take such relish and glee in tormenting Barry, and Hader is so up to the material, that it just works. Not since Breaking Bad have I ended so many episodes of television holding my head and yelling expletives at the screen.
Speaking of episodes, this season had four all-timers by my reckoning. The fourth, seventh and eighth episodes were all masterclasses in tension, unpredictable plotting and dark comic brilliance, but the fifth episode, ronny/lily, is maybe one of the best episodes of television I’ve ever seen. Equal parts Coen Brothers and “Pine Barrens” it’s mostly wordless and mostly an extended fight scene between Barry, Fuches and a father/daughter taekwondo team straight out of another dimension. In the same weekend as the Avengers and the Battle of Winterfell, it was easily the most impressive, unpredictable and overall best fight scene. It operates on the same weird logic as some silent movies did, all slapstick and heightened choreography, right at home with Buster Keaton on that damned train (speaking of, silent film would be a great medium for Bill Hader’s weird, rubbery face and rictus smile).
In the end, it’s hard to really delve into what makes this show special without spoiling it, and spoiling it removes what makes it special. I want everyone to watch it, but I also feel like everyone watching it would ruin it somehow, as if too many sets of eyes looking at it for too long would somehow ruin it. It’s a tremendous show, and with apologies to DC Universe’s transcendental, bizarre Doom Patrol, it’s the best show currently on TV. I don’t really look forward to deciding between it and Saul when the latter returns to our screens in 2020, but I do look forward to watching.