How HBO’s ‘Barry’ is setting new standards for comedy television

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Warning: The following article contains spoilers.

When HBO first announced the arrival of “Barry” to its critically acclaimed Rolodex of television programs, the series seemed like it was slated to be a typical make-you-love-a-man-you-should-hate kind of show.

But as viewers delved into the show’s cold-cut world, scraping further and further into the stark lives of its characters, it became clear that this series would not play into such tired tropes; the show diagnoses the problem with the uniformity of traditional television structures while simultaneously seeking to disrupt it.

“Barry” does everything that a comedy show should be doing. It asserts that uncomplicated characters and superficial jokes should not be the standard for comedic television. This is a show concerned not so much with making its viewers audibly laugh every minute as with leaving them with an appreciation for the nuanced comedic situations it creates. “Barry” operates in a realm in which emotional vulnerability can be clever, existential crises can be witty and comedy can be filled with despair.

Since the ‘90s sitcom reigned king, television has evolved immensely to accommodate increasingly insatiable audiences. With limited time on their hands and the ability to binge-watch, audiences are expecting more from the programs they dedicate their time to. “Barry” demonstrates an expert flexibility when it comes to genre-bending and character development. This is the type of nuance that audiences are looking for, and that needs to be invested in by more shows.

What truly sets “Barry” apart are its character studies. The show, especially in its latest season, sets its characters up with stereotypical frameworks to navigate — but it offers them the mobility to both transcend and fall victim to these tropes.

Take the character arc of Sally (Sarah Goldberg). Once familiar to us as a vapid, uninspiring wannabe Hollywood starlet, Sally slowly reveals truer and more complex colors that imbue Goldberg’s performance with vivid and relatable empathy. As Jen Chaney writes in an article for Vulture, the writers and Goldberg find “a perfect balance between Sally’s self-awareness and lack of it.”

This is exemplified in the second season, as Sally embarks on a mission to honestly tell her story as a domestic abuse survivor. Audiences see not a superficial star-crazy girl but a scarred, neurotic and frightened woman grappling with who she once was and who she wants to be.

This identity crisis comes to a head when she gives her final monologue performance with Barry (Bill Hader). As she raises the gun that is her story and pulls the trigger, the audience anticipates that what will come out is the scene that she and Barry have been practicing for weeks — the unadulterated truth of how she left her ex-husband quietly in the night. What barrels out instead is a monologue that surprises even her, in which she brags about how she told her ex off and fearlessly gained her freedom.

Barry and Sally both actively navigate the same desire to be their most honest selves and constantly run into similar obstacles that force them to hide the truth. This parallel is what makes their relationship so captivating. Sally struggles with her past abusive relationship as Barry’s flashbacks to his service in Afghanistan set the stage for his spiral out of control. And as Sally is surrounded by a crowd of people all praising her for telling a story that isn’t her own, Barry reclaims a story he promised he’d forget and and guns down the crews of Cristobal (Michael Irby)  and NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan) at the monastery.

All this may seem like the makings of a drama; after all, the show does deal with quite a bit of violence, and existential crises abound. But that’s the point. “Barry” is able to explore these facets of its dynamic characters within the context of hysterical situational comedy. Well-rounded character development is not a caveat here, but a necessity to drive a witty series forward.

Episodes like “ronny/lily,” in which a 12-year-old girl beats the shit out of Barry, wouldn’t be so exceptionally sidesplitting without the emotional groundwork the writers have laid for Barry. NoHo Hank’s constant attempts to be a maniacal crime boss wouldn’t be so delusionally entertaining if it weren’t for his unaware, endearing conspicuousness, set in stone over two seasons.

“Barry” has evolved with each season — with each episode, even — taking its characters to places that seemed unimaginable when we were first introduced to them. Each actor on the magnetic screen brings their absolute best to these curious and clever characters, and the writers provide them with situations in which they can shine. Every aspect of “Barry” is setting the standard for what comedy television should start to look like and the lengths to which it should take its characters.

With the recent ending of the second season, new beginnings have been bestowed on each character. Fuches (Stephen Root) is helping the Chechens, Sally is drowning in undeserved praise, Gene (Henry Winkler) is living with the knowledge that Barry killed his girlfriend. And Barry is walking through pools of blood, back into darkness.

But even as Barry the man descends into the gloom, “Barry” the show could not be more enlightened.

Maisy Menzies is the opinion editor. Contact her at [email protected].