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Re: KK's Great Big Random Review Thread

Postby KleinerKiller » Fri May 25, 2018 9:34 pm

Barry (S1) (2018)

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Basic Summary: A war veteran-turned-hitman tries to find a new life in an acting class, with mixed results.
Genre: Dark Comedy, Crime Thriller
Created by: Alec Berg, Bill Hader
Directed by: Bill Hader, Hiro Murai, Alec Berg, Maggie Carey
Written by: Alec Berg, Bill Hader, Liz Sarnoff, various
Starring: Bill Hader, Stephen Root, Henry Winkler, Sarah Goldberg, Anthony Carrigan, Glenn Fleshler
Episodes: 8 (30 minutes each)
Channel: HBO

Spoiler: show
For the unaware, Barry follows Barry Berkman, an Afghanistan veteran who's let himself be manipulated into the world of contract killing for several years. On a routine job to kill the lover of a Chechen mobster's cheating wife, Barry finds himself drawn to an acting class full of losers and weirdos, led by a notoriously bombastic and uncompromising coach. Despite having the acting chops of a wet cardboard cutout of Jai Courtney, Barry realizes this might be the path to an idealistic new life away from the violence that haunts him; unfortunately, that violence keeps dogging at his heels, with hilarious and horrifying results...

So far, this series might be the biggest television surprise of the year for me. I had no idea it was even a thing until a week before it started airing, and only thanks to an early-screener review that gave it a B+. The premise sounded decently compelling, and while I didn't have high hopes, the presence of so many actors I love in other things had me excited. Little did I know that the darkly comic premise would give way to one of the tensest, most nuanced little thriller dramas in recent memory -- and one with the potential to rise to even Breaking Bad's heights.

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The first and most notable thing to cover is our star character, Barry Berkman, as portrayed by Bill Hader. Absolutely no part of me expected Hader, a veteran mostly of goofy comedies and kids' movies, to have serious dramatic potential; I am, of course, always happy to be proven wrong. Hader gets three challenging facets to play -- the shellshocked veteran who wants a happy life, the cold and ruthless professional killer, and the struggling stage performer -- and he pulls them all off well seamlessly. His low vocal range and mostly stoic reactions might trick you into judging him unfairly in the early goings (though he ends the pilot episode with an impressively haunting and expressive monologue), but as the episodes progress, the layers peel away and it becomes increasingly clear that these are very deliberate choices. Barry is at times soulful and pitiful, the dorky underdog we all naturally want to root for and who's just trying to make his dreams come true; at other times, he's the most terrifying motherfucker in the room, doing his job with effortless efficiency even if he clearly isn't pleased to be doing it.

This is a man who is tired of what his life has become, and it was no surprise when I looked up the show's inception and found that much of it was based on Hader's own feelings toward a long stage of his career: the idea of hating something you're really good at and trying to find meaning in something you suck at heavily influenced Barry's character arc. This fundamental despair permeates his actions, and even when things start to get morally questionable, his need to get to a happier place keeps him completely sympathetic. Here's where the Breaking Bad comparisons come in. The protagonist being dragged into dark territory for sympathetic reasons until they can no longer be called the protagonist is one of my favorite storytelling tropes, but it's very easy to do it poorly, and it would be terrible if this just came off like trying to ape more successful predecessors. Thankfully, Barry is a unique character with a unique arc and motivation, and thus far, the moments where he crosses the line feel earned and come at a point where they can successfully challenge the viewer. I had no idea Hader had all of this hidden away.

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Unusually for my reviews, I'm going to get back to analyzing the characters in a moment, because this is a good opportunity to delve into the plot. As is typical for these types of stories, you can divide the plot into two arcs that occasionally intersect but are otherwise self-contained except for their effects on the main character: the "crime plot" (in this case, Barry's dealings with the Chechen mob) and the "civilian plot" (Barry in the acting class). For the first half of the season, I loathed most everything to do with the civilian plot, seeing it as a narrative dead end and a distraction from the material that was actually interesting -- the life Barry is trying to run from, and how he accomplishes that. The crime stuff is much more compelling, much more original, and much more consistently funny than what goes on in the acting class. This reaches its apex in the fourth episode, which spends far too much time on a house party loaded with painful cringe comedy, depriving us of the more interesting goings-on elsewhere. Save a few likable characters, I kind of wanted the season to end with the whole class piling into a van and triggering a Chechen car bomb.

But much like the lead performance that drives it, the story gets much better in the latter half. It starts with the introduction of a few important characters who rapidly shake up the conflict dynamics, in turn flipping Barry's plans upside-down and ratcheting up the tension. From here, Barry went from something I watched if I had time to something I made time for. The episode-to-episode plots get much tighter and carry a sense of proper weight and danger, and the crime and acting class sides of the story start to intermingle more smoothly in a way that benefits both. Emotional scenes are pulled off that actually carry real meaning and impact, especially a climactic chat in a car in the penultimate episode that's going to go down as one of the show's signature scenes and a highlight of Hader's career. The stakes are higher, lives are on the line, and I actually whispered "holy shit" to myself more than once. And through it all, it never completely abandons the black comedy aspect of its storytelling, often following up some fraught and intense introspection with an unexpected gag that's all the more hilarious for its context. The season wraps up most of its arcs conclusively and satisfyingly, but ends on a stunning bittersweet note, and I'm so excited to see where it goes from there.

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Returning to the characters, there's the main villains of the season, populating the organized crime side of the story and played by three of my favorite antagonistic character actors: Stephen Root (among many other things, the voice of Finn's jerkoff dad from Adventure Time), Anthony Carrigan (Victor Zsasz, one of the only characters on Gotham I consistently like), and Glenn Fleshler (known for many, many, many creepy serial killers on the big and small screens). These guys have wonderful chemistry and distinctive screen presences, and they're some of the most entertaining parts of the season. This being the first season of a dark comedy that's focused primarily on digging into its star, I can't exactly give you long breakdowns on what makes them tick, but here's a brief rundown.

Root plays Monroe Fuches, Barry's roommate who functions as both a handler and a surrogate father figure. Root excels at playing guys who use their charisma to make you constantly second-guess your judgement of them, and Fuches is no different; I reevaluated whether he actually cared about Barry or was just using his skills for money several times throughout the season, each time being a more definitive answer. He's exceptionally sleazy and hate-able though, regardless of his true intentions, but Root's sheer presence makes this a positive as I was never annoyed when he was onscreen.

Fleshler and Carrigan, meanwhile, star respectively as Chechen mob kingpin Goran Pazar and his right-hand man NoHo Hank. Both actors have the capacity to be utterly terrifying, but while they're shown to be serious threats on occasion, they're mostly played for great comedic effect. Goran is mostly putting up a thuggish front to distract from the fact that he's a schlubby stay-at-home dad who dotes on his young daughter, and NoHo is so genuinely friendly and chill that he comes off more like a quirky tech startup employee than a vicious enforcer. They're both just great, with NoHo in particular being one of the standouts of the season and a source for some of the funniest quotes in the season.

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On the acting class side, things are more... mixed. I adore two of the main characters of this arc, so this is mainly down to the remaining one: Sally Reed, the functional deuteragonist and Barry's love interest. Introduced as a passionate and driven but somewhat flighty and self-centered woman, she becomes one of Barry's anchors with which to pull himself out of his life as a killer, even before she knows about his feelings. Unfortunately, while I liked her a lot at first, I spent much of the season deeming her the weakest character on the show -- and it's for reasons that I'm still not sure were unintentional. That self-centeredness that's initially on the fringes quickly overtakes her entire personality, leading to many unearned displays of arrogance, pettiness, and downright cruelty toward both Barry and her classmates. Sarah Goldberg does her best with this material, and plays the unpleasantness to the hilt believably while also shining in scattered scenes that give her more depth (a mid-season scene dealing with sexual harassment being her absolute standout). She also goes through a bit of character development by the end that somewhat redeems her, so I know the flaws were supposed to be presented as such. I just have no clue whether I feel her arc is ultimately handled well, or if that development was pulled off successfully enough with a big enough impact on her core traits.

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I don't want to come off like I'm specifically piling on the main woman in the cast, so here's where I go into my absolute adoration for Janice Moss, the police detective who leads an investigation that threatens Barry's livelihood (she's thus involved with both sides of the narrative, but intersects more with the "civilian plot"). It's easy to fuck up writing the investigator character when your more protagonist is the fugitive whom we want to see succeed; separated from the particulars of the action but just immersed enough to be a problem, they easily run the risk being an obnoxious hindrance rather than a compelling rival. Fortunately, Moss succeeds where many others fail.

She's highly intelligent and observant, but all of her guesses and out-there theories are grounded in believable logic for her evidence, so it never feels like she's just stumbling on the right answers because the plot knows she's right. It's fascinating to watch her work and get closer and closer to the truth, even though you know her arrival there will spell disaster for Barry. And on the rare occasion where a dangerous encounter interrupts her investigation, she proves to be competent and skilled enough that she's established as a real threat. But there's also a rich human side to Moss that too often gets overlooked or mishandled by characters of her ilk (Mr. Robot's Dominique DiPierro is a recent exception I kept comparing her to), one that adds weight to her investigation without weighing it down, and she eventually gets involved in an unlikely romantic subplot that I thought I would absolutely despise for being unnecessary, but somehow ended up being a beautifully weird little side story that benefits both characters involved. Paula Newsome makes the most of her screentime despite usually getting less of it in most episodes, and I wish I had more to say about the specifics of her performance, other than it just being damn solid.

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And finally, the acting class's coach, Gene Cousineau, played by the indomitable Henry Winkler. It's tough to write a lot about him because while he's a significant character, he's mainly a device for Barry's self-reflection in the early goings on takes a while to get any material of his own -- and when he does, it's stuff that I don't want to get into for fear of spoiling too much of this very short season. That said, he still managed to be one of my favorite characters on the show, bringing out the effortless cool factor that made him famous in his younger days and blending it into the stock "eccentric, occasionally callous and unforgiving, but secretly well-meaning mentor" archetype to captivating effect. He's also, like NoHo Hank, one of the most consistent sources of hilarious quotes.

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I didn't think I would have much to say about the show's presentation early on, other than it being handsomely shot befitting an HBO drama. However, once the show gets slightly darker and more fascinating, the cinematography shoots way up as well. This seems to be mainly due to the directors in charge of each episode: the first three episodes are directed by Hader himself and the fourth by comedy director Maggie Carey, and are very well-shot and staged but not that noteworthy. Then the fifth and sixth episodes are in the hands of Hiro Murai, whom you may recognize for his fantastic work on Atlanta and Donald Glover's "This Is America" music video; Murai puts his best foot forward in ways that aren't noticeable at first, but gradually become more appreciable with various creative flourishes and a spectacular sense of pace, culminating in a stylish episode-ending cliffhanger that hits you like a bullet. Co-creator Alec Berg then handles the final two, maintaining Murai's energy and sense of craft so carefully that I almost didn't notice the switch, leading to a number of truly phenomenal sequences all complementing each other to build on the escalating violence. I'm not great at discussing direction in filming, so apologies if that was muddled nonsense, but I hope my general point came across.

All in all, Barry is one of the biggest surprises I've had this year, a very good dark comedy that rapidly grew into something truly great and will no doubt continue growing (if the show suddenly sinks next year and becomes a laughingstock, well, that's egg on my face). It may not have the blockbuster power of some of HBO's more widely discussed hits, but the more modest scale and unlikely star shouldn't dissuade anyone from checking it out. It's only eight episodes and the episodes are only half an hour, so it'll be a very easy binge watch if you have to catch up. Berg and Hader have established an awesome kickoff point for their show, and I absolutely can't wait to see how good it gets from here.

Rating: On Broadway
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Last edited by KleinerKiller on Wed Jun 06, 2018 3:47 am, edited 2 times in total.
KK's Review Thread - NEW TV REVIEW: "BARRY"

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Re: KK's Great Big Random Review Thread

Postby Deathclaw_Puncher » Fri May 25, 2018 9:46 pm

Well BB-8 sure got himself into some weird shit.
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