Bill Hader stars in "Barry" on HBO.

Bill Hader stars in "Barry" on HBO. Credit: HBO/Merrick Morton

SERIES "Barry"

 WHEN|WHERE Season 3 premiere Sunday at 10 p.m. on HBO

WHAT IT'S ABOUT By the end of the second season, Barry Berkman/Block (Bill Hader) — the ex-Marine, hit man and would-be movie star — and his former handler Monroe Fuches (Stephen Root) were at war, culminating in a wild shootout at a monastery. Fuches had also told Barry's former acting coach, Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler), that Barry was the one who murdered LAPD detective Janice Moss (Paula Newsome). Because Janice was Gene's lover, Barry now has another adversary. Meanwhile, Barry's girlfriend Sally Reed (Sarah Goldberg) has become a minor TV star and showrunner. Chechen mobster Noho Hanks (Anthony Carrigan) needs Barry for yet another job. (This review is based on the first four episodes offered for review.)

MY SAY After a pandemic-forced delay of three years, "Barry" absolutely remains the dark show for even darker times. The last season ended with a massacre at the Buddhist monastery — a certain eponymous antihero's handiwork — but this season, Barry hallucinates about bullet holes appearing in the middle of the foreheads of those he cares for most. The third also opens with a pair of executions (yup, both to the forehead) which are accompanied by a sharp burst of anger rather than the usual stoic calm.

His affect otherwise remains blank, impassive, wooden or as one TV producer far more colorfully observes, "a not-present Joaquin Phoenix thing …" 

Barry's nerve endings are cauterized and he's still that Gobi Desert of emotional intelligence, but his singular tragedy — if hit men can have such a thing — is that he has now begun to feel. Anger, that most accessible of human emotions, remains the go-to feeling for Barry and white-hot fury arrives in a flash, often volcanically. In one early scene, the blowtorch is directed right at Sally. (She brushes it off because, as a victim of abuse, she's seen this flame before.)

But there's something else stirring inside. Could that be … love? 

In another scene, he looks at someone (can't say who) while his eyes glisten and the shadow briefly passes from his face: "I love you," Barry says. 

Barry!? Barry.

"Barry," both show and character, are all about evolution, and this season offers palpable evidence of that. Sally is now a full-blown narcissist and TV showrunner who keeps Barry "around [because] he treats her like a star," explains her pal Natalie Greer (D'Arcy Carden). Gene, meanwhile, has devolved back to the producer-from-hell whose antics long ago ensured that he would never work in this town again. 

But it's Barry who's really changing, and into what becomes the central conceit, or puzzle, of the third. Past seasons have offered veiled references — Easter eggs, really — to Pinocchio, the classic Disney character who evolves from a block of wood into a real boy. But this season, Pinocchio is made specific: "He was once a wooden soldier," someone says of Barry, "but thanks to Gene Cousineau, he's become a real boy." The line is hilarious because Barry is anything but a real boy although the true intentions of this fascinating, strange and (oh yes) still very funny series are laid bare.

On one level, "Pinocchio" is an allegory about the perils (or evils) of showbiz — recall that Pinocchio was kidnapped by Stromboli for his puppet show, then sold into slavery. Same with "Barry," which also explores some other "Pinocchio" preoccupations: What does it mean to be "bad" or "good?" Can someone evolve from one to the next, and is it even necessary or advisable in a place like Hollywood? 

Like "Get Shorty," the running joke of "Barry" is that hit men can indeed find second careers in Hollywood because they fit right in. While he doesn't know it yet, Barry does too. 

BOTTOM LINE Still strange, dark, harrowing and often — unexpectedly — very funny.

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