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'Barry' review: Season 2's a big improvement over season 1

Bill Hader in HBO's "Barry."

Bill Hader in HBO's "Barry." Credit: HBO/Isabella Vosmikova

SERIES "Barry"

WHEN | WHERE Season 2 premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on HBO.

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Acting coach Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler) is catatonic with grief over the presumed death of his lover and soul mate, Det. Janice Moss (Paula Newsome), at the close of the first season. (She is listed as missing by the start of the second.) He's so grief-stricken that he can't teach class — posing a crisis for Barry (Bill Hader), who is now fully engaged with his new vocation, or avocation, as actor. Class is also a means to bond even closer to his own soul mate, Sally (Sarah Goldberg). More complications: Chechen mobster NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan) has a job for Barry and approaches him at his day job at a Lululemon's. But former hit man Barry wants to stay "former." And more complications: Barry's old handler, Fuches (Stephen Root), needs to reconnect with Barry, too.

Barry Berkman/Barry Block — hit man and former U.S. Marine — ended the first season in a confrontation with Det Moss at Cousineau's weekend cabin. She was about to arrest him, then a gunshot is heard off-screen. Moss is now presumed dead. As Barry got back in bed afterward, he stared up at the ceiling, then said — cryptically — "starting now."     

MY SAY Some dramas yearn to be comedies, and some comedies yearn to be dramas. When they achieve any sort of balance, they're accorded a “frankenword” for the accomplishment — dramedy. But what’s the word for when they don’t? The first season of “Barry” seemed to be reaching for whatever that was.

Despite Hader’s standout performance — he got an Emmy for that, you'll recall — “Barry” was like a series in conflict with itself: a frankenshow with comedy, tragedy, farce, romance and paint-peeling violence. The yearning for balance seemed genuine enough but the payoff just out of reach. Part of the reason, if not exactly the problem, was Barry himself, a stone-cold killer who pulled the trigger and scarcely blinked at the consequences. “Barry” had lots of comic relief (and NoHo Hank), but the brute force of Hader’s Barry turned much of this into puddles under a hot sun. He was that menacing.

The challenge of the second season was to figure out tone and, to a large extent, figure out Barry. The first three episodes — the ones offered for review — meet both challenges head-on. The result is a more compelling anti-protagonist, and a more satisfying show.

Good shows work on multiple layers, and this season the onion is peeled back to reveal some of those. Barry, with the flat affect of the first season, has rejoined the human race by the second. He wants true love (Sally) and wants to understand what made him who he became (paid assassin). He's not the only work-in-progress here. Preening popinjay Gene Cousineau wants to figure out where he went wrong in his life, especially with his estranged son. Sally wants to understand why she endured a sadistic former lover. For each, the theater becomes the vehicle to explore their own hidden layers. Art becomes a means to the truth, and "Barry" asks whether an individual human life be reconfigured as a work of art, too.

And this is a comedy? Well, maybe more by happenstance than design. "Barry" wants to see if a single human soul — Barry's — can be reclaimed, then ask whether there's absolution, even for the worst of sinners. Did he actually kill the good and decent Det. Moss at the close of the first season? And what exactly did "starting now" mean? Those may be mysteries, or red herrings or plain old MacGuffins. But they may also have real significance for this exciting and vastly improved series. They certainly do for Barry. 

BOTTOM LINE "Barry" gets better this season — a whole lot better.

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