Created by Alec Berg and Bill Hader, HBO’s Emmy Award-winning “Barry” continues to be such a deceptively smart show about the human condition, while also being one of television’s funniest half hours. And the good news is that it picks up after a three-year hiatus as if no time has passed at all. It’s still one of the sharpest comedies on TV.
“Everybody deserves a second chance.”
“That’s not how it works.”
The main theme of the brilliant third season can be summarized in that exchange: second chances, and how people are led to believe that it’s up to them when they get to take them. That’s not how it works. Barry Berkman (Bill Hader) is starting to learn this. He’s been trying to take the second chance of leaving his life as a hitman behind and live a happy life as an actor with his girlfriend Sally Reed (Sarah Goldberg) for three seasons now. It hasn’t gone that well. But the other characters are discovering a thing or two about second chances this season too. Sally herself has turned her dark past with an abusive boyfriend into creative inspiration, first in acting class and in a much bigger project this season. It doesn’t go smoothly. Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler) finds himself thrust into what’s more like a 34th chance in the Hollywood scene but learns he may have burned too many bridges for that one to work either. Even Fuches (Stephen Root) and NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan) aren’t remotely where they expected to be when this show began.
The second season of “Barry” ended with several major events that ripple into the start of season three. The biggest is that Fuches told Gene that it was Barry who murdered Janice way back in season one, forever rupturing that foundational relationship on the show. At the same time, NoHo Hank saw his war with the Burmese mob finally reach what seemed like a peaceful resolution, only for it to turn into a massacre at a monastery that left almost all of his “buddies” dead.
As season three opens, most of the characters seem adrift in the wake of season two’s violence and revelations. Barry has lost all focus and ambition, sitting on Sally’s couch, playing video games most of the day. A guy like Barry needs purpose—aimlessness is bad for a sociopath. The violent visions don’t help. Barry needs something to do, and that comes when Gene confronts him about what he knows. Without spoiling anything, much of season three is about Barry forcing forgiveness on Gene. Can you force someone to forgive you? Does it mean the same thing if it’s unearned?
At the same time, Sally sees her theatre project turned into a TV series called “Joplin,” which allows the writers of “Barry” to dig into the shallow nature of Hollywood, a place that turns tragic pasts into parts of rating algorithms. The great Elsie Fisher (“Eighth Grade”) plays the young star of “Joplin,” the daughter that Sally’s mother character is trying to talk into leaving an abusive relationship. The core of Sally’s past with a predator has been so diffused by the Hollywood system that it barely resembles the “truth” that she was trying to find in season two, and an incident in the second episode of the season makes her relationship with Barry way more complicated than it was before.
Meanwhile, Fuches is on the run, kept hidden away on the other side of the world, hoping for his own second chance, and Hank is handling a smaller version of his old operation while finding a truly unexpected chance at happiness (that can’t be spoiled due to a relatively long list from HBO but leads to some very inspired scenes).
The writing on “Barry” continues to ask fascinating questions, particularly when it comes to how much people “act” with one another. Barry is the kind of guy who thinks there’s a solution for every problem, even if that comes with a bullet, but the show keeps presenting him dynamics that can’t be so easily solved. It does that for all its characters, interrogating concepts of forgiveness, trauma, and regret. It’s a show that’s constantly playing with ulterior motives, and how the people that have been introduced though Gene’s acting class aren’t the only ones putting on a show for those around them.
In terms of plotting, the third season take a little while to build momentum but that’s intentional. These characters are lost emotionally and disconnected physically for a few episodes, trying to figure out for themselves what the next chapter looks like. It makes sense that the storytelling drifts a bit, but it really locks in around episode 4 and the next two are among the best in the history of the series. Episode 6 has a sequence that rivals the beloved “ronny/lily” episode from season two in terms of pure ingenuity.
It’s also just still so funny and smart. From Barry on the phone with tech support for a bomb that won’t explode to Gene being told some of his more profane nicknames by his agent, this season might be the funniest one yet. Sally’s adventures in the world of TV production allows for some pretty scathing satire about things like junkets, premieres, exec meetings, and even Rotten Tomatoes.
As for the performances, it remains one of TV’s best ensembles, enlivened by a consistently incredible array of guest stars (most of which, again, can’t be spoiled). Hader leans into Barry’s exhaustion this season, playing him as a man closer to the edge than he was in the first two years, especially when he realizes he needs to save Gene to save himself. It’s also nice to see the actor willing to lean into Barry’s sociopathic behavior. He’s not really a “good guy”—in fact, the show could arguably be about a bad guy trying to convince himself that he’s not really all that bad. This season shows a darker side of Barry that disrupts the world around him. Lesser programs would have gone the other way and turned the series into a more obvious redemption narrative. Does Barry Berkman deserve a second chance? That’s not how it works. [A]