All week, WIRED's Culture team will be writing endorsement letters for various Emmy nominees in advance of next Monday's awards ceremony. Kicking things off: senior writer and almost definitely not Chechen mobster Jason Parham.
Does comedy, as a TV genre, have some greater purpose, or responsibility, other than to make us laugh? The best comedies on TV this year posed serious questions, but they weren’t, by traditional standards, all that funny: Of the eight nominees vying for Outstanding Comedy Series at next Monday’s Emmy Awards, only three felt like textbook satires.
Cunning and permeable, the majority of the nominees hinted at the genre’s elastic progression. There’s Donald Glover’s Atlanta, too stubborn a creative outfit to pigeonhole itself into one tidy category. Its second season, the fittingly titled Robbin’ Season, was consumed with theft and the toll of loss, both physically and psychologically. Black-ish also ventured into darker provinces with its exploration of family decay, focusing on parents Dre (Anthony Anderson) and Bo’s (Tracee Ellis Ross) inevitable separation. Even feminist engines like GLOW and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel flirted with distinctly sobering themes: the ache of immigration hardship, divorce and single motherhood, the prick of AIDS.
Then there’s Barry, the HBO series about Barry Berkman, a disaffected Midwest hitman-turned-actor in the throes of an existential crisis. With it, the prestige network proved the static half-hour comedy format could strive for meaning outside itself. That perhaps humor, empathy, and truth could be extracted from life’s more solemn notes—murder, violence, personal defeat. Barry didn’t just mine the tragic for comic; it did so better than any of its contemporaries in a year of standout television.
When we first meet our titular hero, played by former Saturday Night Live Renaissance Man Bill Hader, he’s trapped in an emotionally dead-in job as a contract killer and wants out of the murder-for-hire business. Understandably, Barry is at a crossroads. That all changes, though, when he ends up in Los Angeles on an assignment tasked with killing a personal trainer who had an affair with a Chechen mobster’s wife. With a dose of serendipity, the hit leads Barry into an acting class. And it’s here, among an odd bunch of wannabes, where he finds his new purpose: aspiring thespian.
But the show, co-created by Hader and Silicon Valley showrunner Alec Berg, is not uniquely concerned with Barry’s pursuits inside the classroom, or on the stage—it’s curious as to how he’ll juggle his old life, as a hitman, with his new one, as an actor. The irony, of course, is that the one quirk that affords Barry success as an ace killer is also what makes him such a godawful actor: he’s a mostly forgettable schlub that easily fades into any background.
Acting, though, becomes a lifeline for Barry—it presents him with a chance to stall the erasure he’s faced with in his own trivial existence. In one of the show’s more baldly tear-worthy moments, he bares his soul to his acting teacher, going into detail about his military stint in Afghanistan and how he feels devoid of true purpose; the teacher, played with a swindler’s touch by Henry Winkler, confuses it for a monologue. “What’s that from?” he asks, eyebrows arched. “Are you telling me that was an improvisation? The story’s nonsense, but there’s something to work with.”
It’s not just Barry who’s working against irrelevance—it’s the community of artists he’s surrounded himself with, all of whom are similarly trying to make something, anything, of their lives.
That, essentially, is the gist and genius of the show, which belongs to a new, more morose and deadly serious stripe of comedy. And it’s not just Barry who’s working against irrelevance—it’s the community of artists he’s surrounded himself with, all of whom are similarly trying to make something, anything, of their lives. Like Barry’s love interest, the emotionally volatile actress Sally Reed (Sarah Goldberg), utterly self-serving and willfully naive about her career. Or Gene M. Cousineau (Winkler), the laughably out-of-touch instructor who’s more Joanne the Scammer than Obi-Wan Kenobi. Even Barry’s boss, Fuches (Stephen Root), refuses to let him renounce his life as a hitman because it would further marginalize his own meaningless life. Set against a macabre landscape dotted with palm trees and weirdos, Barry’s bit players are what fuel the show’s loftier aim, the pursuit of redemption. It’s a show that squarely asks: Can a person actually remake himself?
All the while, bodies pile up. There’s blood. There’s death. There’s awkward encounter after awkward encounter. The series unfurls, sometimes with a stumble and other times in brilliant leaps (as it does in the final two episodes), across the outskirts of Los Angeles—North Hollywood, Studio City, the Valley. In this regard, thematically at least, Barry is very much a show about living on the periphery and trying to find your way back to the center. Any center.
Luckily, comedy itself has done away with its center. The influx of streaming giants have amply allowed comedies—“murder-coms” like Barry and Search Party, mockumentaries like American Vandal, absurdist fare like Kimmy Schmidt—more flexibility with interior approach to narrative. The creative flair of a show like Atlanta is that you don’t quite know what it’s looking for, or where it will land, or where its true north is.
Where Barry excels in this regard is its urgency toward empathy—and how it re-engineers that into a kind of power (the same way Showtimes’s SMILF and Netflix’s Atypical do). It wants us to feel for its heroes and anti-heroes even as they work against our better judgements. It’s a show that allows for destruction and daring, for failure and fickleness, in a single clip, even when—mostly when—there’s no expected punchline.
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