'Barry' Comes to a Fitting End
There is no 'starting ... now'
Switching things up a bit this week by reversing the usual order. You’re in Bizarro Screen Time now, folks!
Assigned Viewing: Barry (HBO Max, or HBO, or Max, or whatever it’s called now)
Four critically acclaimed shows called it quits this week: Succession, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Ted Lasso, and Barry. I didn’t watch Succession, so I have no thoughts on that (though Zandy Hartig has plenty), and I stopped watching Mrs. Maisel after season two, so I have few thoughts on it either.
Ted Lasso and Barry I watched from start to finish, however, and it’s kind of interesting to think of both shows in conjunction. Ted Lasso is sui generis in that I’ve never seen a show that received near-unanimous critical and popular acclaim in its first season and then decided, over the course of its next two seasons, to become an entirely different show in an entirely different genre, much to its detriment. The first season was a pretty straightforward half-hour romcom, a welcome breather during the 2020 campaign and the crushing pandemic restrictions that was best described as “nicecore.” It was a show about trying to act decently and how doing so will improve your world and the world of those around you. It was deeply pleasant and pretty funny and altogether charming.
By the end of the third season the show—which had once been a pretty tight half-hour—had ballooned in length, several of the episodes running nearly feature length. It was repetitive and weirdly hectoring, featuring lecture-like dialogue about topics that were frequently popular on Twitter (like, say, the utter sanctity of nude photos shared between sexual partners) yet bore little resemblance to how any such conversation would ever play out in a locker room setting. Ted Lasso was still occasionally quite funny, but the whole vibe shifted as the program evolved from a half-hour comedy to an hour-plus prestige dramedy. I didn’t hate the last season, exactly, but you could just feel a tighter, better show resting under the surface.
Barry was a show that underwent a similar shift in tone—moving from a relatively straightforward dark comedy about a hit man who wanted to get out of the murder game and into the acting game to something slightly more surreal—as creator and star Bill Hader spent more time behind the camera (he directed the entire final season and much of the penultimate season as well). Barry’s audience was perfectly willing to accept the added flourishes of prestige cable (dream sequences! Tonal shifts!) in part because the show was always firmly within the realm of prestige cable’s preferred ethos, a sort of antiheroic ambiguity that dared audiences to empathize with plainly wicked individuals. But also because the show remained, at heart, a half-hour comedy. Yes, a dark comedy, and one with dramatic undertones. But a comedy nonetheless.
And by remaining true to that darkly comic, half-hour-ish limitation, the show’s thematic import hit with greater clarity and resonance. The closing shot of the first season of Barry—which saw Berkman lying in bed, having just killed a woman, whispering to himself “Starting … now” as if that two-word phrase were a magic talisman that would send him down the path to righteousness—is one of my favorite moments of self-delusion in the history of television. Here’s a man who desires absolution without penance. He’s trying to stop killing people by killing just one more person, but the problem with killing people to get away with killing people is that you just wind up killing more people to cover your tracks.
And while that specific predicament likely doesn’t apply to most of us (he chuckles, tugging at his collar), it’s a handy metaphor for anyone who has found himself in a hole and ignored the first rule of holes (to stop digging). There is no “starting … now.” The entire last three seasons are a refutation of the idea that there is, or can be, a “starting … now.” There is only “Here’s what I’ve done; how can I admit what I’ve done and make up for it?”
Without spoiling the end of Barry, I’ll merely say that I strongly disagree with those who found the ending too pat or believed that Barry Berkman was treated to either cosmic justice or comic injustice. The way the show wraps up—from Barry’s fate to the fate of his family to the way the world perceives all of them—is a perfectly dark punchline to a 32-episode-long black joke.
In other words: it’s a fitting end for a show that never lost sight of its format.
This week on Across the Movie Aisle, we had a good rant about the awfulness of Disney’s addiction to the monstrous live-action remakes they keep foisting on us. Did I use my allotted time to condemn Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland? You better believe it! Give it a listen.
In that review, I linked to Parul Sehgal’s New Yorker essay from 2021, “The Case Against the Trauma Plot,” which is well worth reading and thinking about. It’s time for trauma to stop being used as a shorthand ploy for sympathy in fiction.
Last week’s episode of The Bulwark Goes to Hollywood was very popular; everyone couldn’t wait to hear what the Entertainment Strategy Guy sounded like. Give it a listen and make sure to check out tomorrow’s episode with Cara Cusumano of the Tribeca Festival.
Apparently, Tom Cruise is asking theater owners and competing studios to give his latest Mission: Impossible movie more time on IMAX-style large format screens at the expense of Oppenheimer, which is, for obvious reasons, unlikely to happen.