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Arts & Life

TV Review: 'Barry' Turns In A Stellar Second Season


HBO's dark comedy "Barry" capped a pretty stellar first season with two big wins at last year's Emmy Awards. As the show's second season debuts Sunday, NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says one question looms - can they keep up the quality? And be warned - this story has some frank discussion about violence and suicide.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: The biggest triumph in the first season of HBO's "Barry" was creating a complex, fleshed-out series from a one-note joke. A hit man decides he wants to be an actor after following a target into an acting class.

The second season is trying something even more ambitious, making us sympathize with a stone cold killer who wonders if he's a psychopath. Ex-"Saturday Night Live" star Bill Hader plays that killer Barry Berkman, who reveals his fears to a crime boss by asking - am I evil?


BILL HADER: (As Barry) Am I, like - am I, like, an evil person?

ANTHONY CARRIGAN: (As NoHo Hank) Oh, my God - I mean, absolutely. Do I not tell you that enough? You are, like, the most evil guy I know, man.

HADER: (As Barry) You know, I take no pleasure in killing people. You know that, right?

CARRIGAN: (As NoHo Hank) Man, all this talking has made me hungry.

DEGGANS: That crime boss, Anthony Carrigan's NoHo Hank, is a character who exemplifies the line this series walks so artfully. Given to reading self-help books and running part of a Chechen crime family, Hank toggles between planning volleyball games with his henchmen and ordering Barry to shoot a rival in the head with a specially marked bullet. Here, Hank is writing a letter to his bosses in the crime family about working with a rival gang.


CARRIGAN: (As NoHo Hank) Now, I know there's still some small reservation about teaming up with traditional enemies, the Bolivians. But worry not, Batir (ph). They are wonderful dudes. They are unrivaled thieves and super great at acquiring cargo. And you know what we are good at? Repackaging said cargo. It is like yin and yang, meant to be, peas in pod.

DEGGANS: Like so many characters in "Barry," Hank is blissfully unaware of how dumb and horrifyingly brutal he actually is. Self-awareness - characters learning the difference between who they think they are and who they really are - is a major theme this season. And as several characters make that journey in the new season, compelling storylines are sprinkled throughout the new episodes - like Barry's girlfriend, Sally, who melts down during an acting class while complaining about landing in minor roles playing trivial characters.


SARAH GOLDBERG: (As Sally) OK. You want me to say that I was married and he was abusive and I stayed in it for years anyway. Is that what you want? What - you think that I'm booking all these weak women because I was weak in my marriage? You're wrong. I am not weak.

DEGGANS: But later, Sally learns her departure from that marriage wasn't as assertive as she remembers. I don't want to spoil the ending of last season. But as this season opens, a major character has gone missing due to events from the season finale. And grief over that loss has shaken everyone in the acting class - except Barry. Henry Winkler won his first Emmy last year playing Barry's acting teacher Gene Cousineau. This season, Cousineau's depressed enough to think about ending his own life.


HENRY WINKLER: (As Gene Cousineau) In my bedroom is a mahogany box. And in that box is a pearl-handled .38 Special given to me by my former roommate Rip Torn. Do you know how many times today I actually thought about going in there and giving it one last kiss?

HADER: (As Barry) You wanted to kiss a gun?

WINKLER: (As Gene Cousineau) Are you not familiar with the Japanese ritual of Harry Caray (ph)?

HADER: (As Barry) A baseball announcer?

WINKLER: (As Gene Cousineau) I need you out of my house.

HADER: (As Barry) OK.

DEGGANS: "Barry" can be unsettling in the way that it leads us into laughing at levels of violence and dark subjects that aren't typically sources of TV comedy. But the show then turns around and asks its own tough questions about every character's choices, which leads us viewers to wonder - if this is also funny, what does that say about the world and about us?

I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF SUN ELECTRIC'S "STIMPAK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.