In the first episode of HBO’s Barry, Bill Hader’s hit man blurts out his life story to his acting teacher (Henry Winkler). Barry used to feel a sense of purpose when killing, first as a Marine and now as the employee of a family friend (Stephen Root); it’s the only thing he’s sure he’s great at. But lately, he’s been feeling as lost as ever: “I know there’s more to me than that.” Winkler’s Gene Cousineau, a self-serious buffoon long used to being surrounded by weightless do-nothings, mistakes Barry’s confession for an improvised monologue. “The story’s nonsense,” Gene assesses, “but there’s something to work with.”
Gene’s skepticism of Barry is exactly how I felt about the show’s first season, in which series creators Hader and Alec Berg (Silicon Valley) welded together showbiz satire with gangland drama. The result was a study of ironic contrasts that felt more like a cleverly executed thought experiment than an organic premise. Gene and his self-absorbed students strive to convey “truth” while being more full of bullshit than all the cattle ranches in Texas put together. Glum, anhedonic Barry wants to use his acting classes to access the parts of himself he’d long repressed, but he’s unwilling to channel the darkness within, or even confront how deep inside him it reaches. Actors in this universe may be a transparently artificial lot, but they’re no more preening and fanciful than the Chechen mobsters in Barry’s orbit, who devise impractical flourishes with which to impress their peers and rivals. It’s not just the thespians who see themselves as the stars of their own movies, hoping to reinvent themselves from nobody-from-nowhere to Los Angeles legend.
Barry’s offbeat juxtapositions take some getting used to, which may explain why its debut season focused so heavily on establishing its tonal puckishness and its own version of L.A. Season 2, which premieres on HBO Sunday night, begins shortly after last year’s events, when Gene’s detective girlfriend, Janice (Paula Newsome), discovers Barry’s career and is murdered soon after by the contract killer. The psychologically stunted Barry, who’d long told himself that he only killed “bad guys,” must contend with the reality that he still counts as “evil” even if he doesn’t take a Dexter-ish pleasure in slaughter—a storyline that feels not unlike watching the sky realize it’s blue. More engrossing are the traps Barry falls into when he becomes a gunslinger who no longer has what it takes to pull the trigger on strangers, even when he’s got the Chechen mob on his back after taking out several of its members last season. It’s all well and good if he’s ready to start a new chapter in his life, but the Chechens demand their blood debt be paid, and Janice’s former partner (John Pirruccello) won’t let her disappearance go unsolved.
In the new season, Barry’s morose self-introspection (and self-pity) becomes hard to stomach, but at least the rest of the show’s characters gain histories in satisfying new ways. Gene’s grief pushes him to reconnect with a son he’d abandoned as a child, but can’t stop his narcissism from directing his gestures into disaster. Barry’s girlfriend, Sally (Sarah Goldberg)—it must be noted, the show’s only substantial female character—is suddenly forced to address one of the most traumatic experiences of her life. Reluctant Chechen gang leader NoHo Hank (the scene-stealing Anthony Carrigan), the funniest and most convincing of the show’s jolly sociopaths, is pushed into making the kind of difficult decisions he didn’t have to when he was just a comic-relief lackey. And the father-son dynamic between Barry and his former handler, Fuches (Root), takes the kind of wild turn that Season 1’s table-setting had assiduously prepared us for.
As compelling as these blossomings are, it’s impossible not to wonder if Barry will join Veep and Silicon Valley as one of as HBO’s three-joke comedies—sitcoms that seem to recycle the same quips with negligible variations and diminishing returns. The scenes irascibly mocking the acting students have long passed from sour to vinegary. And while the show’s writers have certainly succeeded in their efforts to deglamorize mob life, there’s something disappointing about its portrayal of Los Angeles as a melting pot of mostly white, artistically inclined transplants and amoral immigrant criminals (from Russia, Bolivia, and as of this season, Burma) whose humanity, or lack thereof, is defined by their proximity to or distance from American culture. (The irrepressible NoHo Hank, for example, and his cherished new Bolivian partner embrace Tony Robbins, Thomas Friedman, and Yoshinoya beef bowls. In contrast, Hank’s previous boss and silent new Burmese foe are undeveloped, Old World–stuck cannon fodder.) Barry’s mission isn’t to bust all the stereotypes it encounters, but the ones it bothers to dismantle have yielded such ingenuity and charm that it’s a shame the show doesn’t think just a little bigger.