In “Better Late Than Never”, join Marc Alan Fishman as he trips sideways into streaming his way through a series and comes back to his column here on Pop Culture Squad to talk about its greatness as if the series just came out.
Shortly after meeting our titular Cleveland-based assassin Barry Berkman in writer/star Bill Hader’s Barry, he sits, staring into the middle-distance — his face blank, but the body language and minimally adorned apartment he calls home clearly shows us a man 7 feet below ground in exhausting depression. A jump cut later, Barry collects a crappy sedan below a staggeringly cyan blue sky of Los Angeles. Another job — to assist the Chechen Mob — has Berkman out West. By the end of the pilot, Barry completes his initial hit, not without complications; Chief among them his sudden fascination with potentially becoming an actor and abandoning his hitman profession.
Barry, as created by Bill Hader and Alex Berg, is presented as a half-hour comedy, but always carries a brilliant dramatic undertone. Where the tropes we expect are immediately apparent, from the barely-a-bit actor-turned-acting-teacher, the bright-eyed would-be players with dreams of grandeur, and even Barry himself as a fish out of water, the series takes pain to never indulge in the predictable. With a serialized structure that builds to a boiling point in each of the two seasons (with more to come, thankfully) would-be bingers will find themselves on the edge of their seat as I was — a fine follow up post six seasons of Sopranos leaving me wanting gun play and violence with a hopeful sidestep from crippling ennui. Of course that desire to sidestep the maudlin was met with a bit of a belly flop. But spoilerific pontification will come a bit later in this column.
Bill Hader was to Saturday Night Live the same as stalwart everymen-with-more-than-meets-the-eye like the late Phil Hartman, Darryl Hammond or his malleable mate Jason Sudeikis or Will Forte. Hader was often tossed into thankless gameshow host roles when he wasn’t peddling out brilliantly accurate impressions of Al Pacino, Alan Alda, or James Carville. But as great as Hader could make us all laugh, beneath it a smarter, darker performer lurked around the edges. That he had under that bravado both writing and directing chops as well? It makes Barry all the better.
Beyond Hader though, Barry boasts a cast second-to-none. A brilliant performance by Henry Winkler — whose credits should include Arrested Development and Barry far more than forever being Arthur Fonzerelli — anchors the ensemble. Steven Root chews the scenery in yet-another turn of malevolence from the man most consider first as the meek Milton of Office Space. Sarah Goldberg walks the tightrope as a love-interest, wide-eyed star-in-waiting, and embittered scene stealer. And Anthony Carrigan showcases a comedic side barely scuffed off the bootheels of his often forgotten turns as villains in both Gotham and The Flash.
I recognize though, that Barry itself ended its second season in March of 2019. It’s likely perhaps some fine folks reading this might have actually already seen the show. And I want to have a hearty dialogue with them having recently finished the second season finale just a handful of days ago. For those who haven’t seen the show? Go see it. It’s on HBO Max, and truly, I can’t extoll the virtues of it any harder. It also won 6 Emmys, so, seriously, what are you waiting for. For the rest of us though? Let’s dig in.
SPOILERS ABOUND, YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
When season one ended with Barry pleading to both himself and the universe “…starting now!” it felt as if the series had stated its thesis. What is our capacity for change in the face of all that conspires against us? And while most of us may deal with the merry-go-round of dieting, bad habits, or procrastination… Barry forces the same stakes with a gun barrel firmly on the back of our necks.
Hader is deceptively adept at keeping Barry Berkman/Block forever on the fence of our own moral conscience. At his core, he wants badly to believe he is a good man, but the harder choices he continuously makes — the murdering of Detective Moss, and Chris Lucado chief among them — place him firmly in grey territory. Barry himself is far adjacent to a Tony Soprano or Walter White anti-hero; his choices are always for self-preservation even when his decisions bend right to the bone of unforgivable. Because we’re shown time-and-again what Barry wants more than anything is to just pursue his newfound passion to act, we as the audience tend to side with him. He doesn’t want to be violent, but the world around him does. Berkman can’t see there’s always another choice; But let’s face it, none of us would likely choose 20+ years in prison for murder, if we could prevent it. At least that’s where Bill Hader and Alec Berg want us to land time and again.
In that season 2 finale, Berg and Hader abandon the faintest lilt of humor to produce some of the grittiest and saddest 10 minutes ever cut to film. Barry murders a warehouse of men without flinching… and steps literally into the darkness. Gene Cousineau — a walking-waking coma for nearly the length of the episode — flashes to those whispered words we haven’t forgotten since Fuches leaned in. “Barry Berkman did this.”
Oftentimes, TV shows will wind up writing themselves into a corner. We’re convinced there’s no turns left; that the inevitable is forthcoming, and we’re out of options. Barry attempted to write us a pass with “…starting now!”, lulling us into a sense that we could enjoy the second season as Barry shook away the world of mercenary hits and mob warfare. But that would have been far too easy, right? Instead, a slow burn until the worlds collided, and a warehouse of dead men, and a still-free Fuches sewing seeds in the interest of his own self-preservation and petty anger at the potential loss of his meal ticket roaming with a target on his back is where we end.
When we pick up in season three (with a still-to-be-release-date forthcoming), we are all left to speculate. Hader himself denoted in writing seasons 3 and 4 he aims teased: “So much of it is following wherever the emotion takes you and being true and honest to the characters. In doing that, you get funny stuff and you get really tragic stuff.” It’s hard to image exactly where we’ll go. In the shortest of short terms, Cousineau will choose to go to the cops or to stay silent-and-in-terror. Barry will be on the hunt for Fuches hide, and Sally will be pressed to lean into the false truth she promoted on stage to the applause of the minor-masses. To stay true to all of that, we’ll wind up asking what truly is moral? To own your narrative or to force the universe to agree with your desired interpretation of it.
And I can’t wait to see it unfold when it does.