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'Barry' Is Still a Very Funny Comedy

By Allyson Johnson | TV | May 17, 2023 |

By Allyson Johnson | TV | May 17, 2023 |


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Season four of HBO’s comedy Barry is the show at its funniest. Really. The comedic moments that defined season one have returned. In the most recent episode, for instance, we get to watch as Fuches’s goons ooh and awwww like kids in a candy shop at the mansion Hank is showing them, and enjoy Hank’s offhand delivery about a college with a terrific volleyball team. Bill Hader and Co. excel in this form of storytelling where there’s no need to lay everything bare, such as Sally’s confrontation with a faceless force — is it her trauma, a real bungled hit, or something in between? Barry trusts the viewers with the ambiguity of the drama, and season four serves as a reminder that the comedy is treated the same way.

Hader has instilled even the quietest of episodes with playfulness, despite some of the bleakest imagery we’ve seen on the show. From Barry and Sally serving uncooked food to their son, to Sally using alcohol to sedate him, or Gene shooting his son out of fear, there’s no shortage of horrific moments. Whether it’s egomaniacal narcissists, terrible parents, or actual hitmen, Barry immerses itself in a narrative where despicable individuals become entangled in their self-created catastrophes and make us laugh against our better judgment.

In “Lock the Door,” for instance, Hader frames a sequence where Barry makes a pit stop at a big box store while pursuing Gene. Stuffed animals hilariously loom over his shoulders as he listens to an evangelical podcast to alleviate his concerns about the morality of murder. His purpose in the store is to purchase guns, which are handed to him in a paper bag. Per state protocol, the store clerk has him examine pictures depicting the violent impact of bullets before selling them to him. The images barely faze Barry. And why would they? Barry fails to see anything inherently wrong with his intentions despite the sermons he’s listening to. He clicks through countless episodes of radical faith-based podcasts, seeking the justification he desires.

Maybe the answer to Barry’s concerns lies in finding faith. Deep down, even before he became a cold-blooded murderer, Barry was consumed by his image. It was not that he cared about the act of killing itself, but in how it would diminish him. He believed he had been wronged and forced to live a life in which he had no active choice. Through his faith, he has found the excuse to murder that he always sought. It provides him with the reassurance that he is inherently good, regardless of his past transgressions. He can attribute any wrongdoing he has committed to a higher power. He can shift the blame onto God.

It’s hilarious in its accuracy and absurdity.

Indeed, Barry has always excelled at blending humor with its insidious darkness. It’s why Anthony Carrigan has continued to evolve as one of the strongest characters (and I’d argue Carrigan is delivering the performance of the season). Hank’s brand of comedy has broad latitude, but he precisely weaves into it tragedy and menace.

Similarly, Sarah Goldberg’s portrayal of Sally has taken us on a rollercoaster journey from a wannabe starlet to a successful actress, then to a social pariah, and now a runaway. Her story is about growing up in a passively hostile environment and finding herself trapped in a physically abusive relationship. With Barry, she exists in a complex space, where he hasn’t physically harmed her but has left deeper emotional scars. She decides to flee with the serial killer anyway, viewing it as a better option than staying in Hollywood. While she may not be at the center of their make-believe life, she still plays a role, donning her wig every day as she heads to work, finding solace in a semblance of that control.

There’s a wickedness to the writing this year. While the show has never shied from its bruising introspection or anxiety-inducing moments — Barry cowering away from the gun at the end of season three will forever haunt me — season four is exceptional in how scathing the scripts have been. To wit: Gene, a self-satisfied absentee father, feigns an apology, revealing that he only left his son bleeding once he realized the wounds were nonfatal. He then embarks on an eight-year journey of self-reflection in Israel. He believes he’s a changed man and provides evidence by telling his son that he didn’t come back for the movie about Barry being optioned because he was enthralled with the fame, but because he didn’t want this killer to be turned into an icon.

The comedy in the show stems not from big and broad scenes but from the intricate and well-developed characters. Moments like Fuches’s release from prison or Stephen Root’s transformation — the tight white tank, ink-covered body, and painted nails — soar with comedic brilliance. Bill Hader injects humor even in the simplest moments. His keen eye for composition elevates visual gags, exemplified by the hilarious sequence of Fuches riding in the back of a convertible, his grimacing stare at a barista, and a jump cut back to the car where they now share the backseat.

Equipped with extensive knowledge of cinema and a keen understanding of what makes a scene funny, season four of Barry is also brimming with subtly comedic moments clearly influenced by the Coen Brothers, like Henry Winkler’s shriek as he shoots his son through the door. Despite the show’s nihilistic nature, it never forgets to make us laugh. Barry season four excels in piercing our defenses, prompting guffaws and snorts in response to the ludicrous things Hank says or Barry’s ongoing self-aggrandizing.

Barry refuses to wallow in the depravity of its characters and instead finds humor in the mess these characters have made of their lives. It never undermines the pain and trauma of the ones who deserve our sympathy, but it remembers that humans are messy, and so is the grief they experience and the tragedy they endure. It also remembers that comedy can be found in any moment of life, even in the perils of Barry.