Friday, December 1, 2023

The Stunning Plot Economy Of HBO’s “Barry”

The final season of “Barry” begins as a prison drama with Barry incarcerated, but it’s become a quasi-Western by the halfway point. When we catch up with Sally, she is in the throes of anguish in her parent’s living room, a new low, but by episode 4, she has the offer to reignite her acting career. Minutes later, it’s years in the future, and she’s suddenly a struggling mom with a fridge of alcohol and a single donut. Cristobal and NoHo Hank have a new business venture; they’re going straight– until they don’t. All these arcs come to a mid-point collision of cascading consequences, leaving blood, bodies, and last chances in their wake. It’s potent, upsetting television, demanding that its audience deal with who these flawed, desperate characters really are as they count the cost of their mistakes. We are in a time where every other series seems to take a “super-size-me” approach to episode length, doing in three or four scenes (or even multiple episodes) what they should do in one or two. “Barry,” by contrast, is a rare example of clockwork storytelling, where even as the plot accelerates and the tone darkens, it has a powerful narrative economy where every scene still counts.

Whether the screen is big or small, runtimes seem to be getting longer and longer, and our patience is more and more tested. It’s been happening for years. More and more movies are pushing two-and-a-half to three-hour runtimes, with some earning the investment (“Avatar: The Way of Water,” “Drive My Car“) and some not (“Eternals“). “No Time to Die” is the longest James Bond movie to date, and this year we have new movies by Christopher Nolan and Martin Scorsese pushing three hours each (I suspect both will be great). Shows like “Ozark,” “Ted Lasso,” and “Game of Thrones” stretched episodes to occasionally fatiguing effect, lumbering marathons instead of sprints. “Stranger Things” did the same in its fourth season, building episodes as mini-movies to accommodate the growing cast, interlocking plotlines, and big-budget scale, delivering a season with dazzling highs but a few exhausting lows.

If we’re living in an epidemic of bloat, then “Barry” is our survival bunker. So far, with one episode left this season, the fourth season already has enough plot to fill multiple seasons of the average TV show but remarkably sticks to a tight thirty minutes per episode. Over a couple of episodes, Barry and Sally become parents after they elope, Cousineau is a runaway after shooting his son, NoHo Hank, a hugely successful entrepreneur after murdering his team and lover, and Fuches is an ex-con badass coated in tattoos. In lesser hands, we’d have had an entire season of Barry in prison or on the run, padding episodes with needless exposition and pointless action scenes, stretching out the suspense until the pacing bottoms out, spreading the same amount of story over super-sized episodes or longer seasons. Instead, this season hits hard and fast, with episode four serving as a jolting mini-finale that reset the game board, with a time jump that empowers audiences to fill in the gaps instead of spelling out every detail.

Bill Hader, “Barry” co-creator Alec Berg, and their team of writers have always shown intelligence in how to organize their season. They share a collective sixth sense in knowing the perfect time to unmask new narrative layers, whether it be new personal details (Cousineau’s estranged son) or a new threat (Barry’s co-serviceman turned cop, Albert Nguyen). Season 1 starts with a simple hitman job-of-the-week episodic structure, surgically adding new elements of intrigue or suspense episode by episode as Barry takes up acting and becomes entangled with the Chechen mob, only later to be tracked by the police. It’s as though Hader’s plan was to gently coax a new audience to connect with his unique blend of darkly comic ultraviolence, slapstick, and playful surrealism.

Barry” comes alive for the first time in the final stretch of Season 1, as it harvests the seeds of the plot carefully planted over the first half. Through a horrible mix of circumstances, Chris, an old Marine buddy of Barry’s, gets stuck with him during a hit gone wrong, setting into motion a chain of causality with massive ripple effects for the season and the show as a whole. Chris saves Barry’s life, but he has to do it by killing a Bolivian enforcer––his first kill––and he justifiably breaks down and lets slip that he wants to report it to the police. Barry kills him. It’s here we see the first signs of the infectious moral decay surrounding Barry’s life that comes to poison almost everyone in it, propelling him into a trauma spiral of highs and lows that ends with him killing Janice, the police detective who’s dating Cousineau. It’s the perfect place to leave the debut season.

Season 2 was a graduation of every kind. It’s a bolder, more confidently mapped season, using the emotional fallout of Barry murdering Janice as a lit fuse. Early on, Barry’s emotional descent fuels the first flashback to his military service, an “acting exercise” narrated in front of Cousineau’s acting class. We see his first kill, the genesis of the validation loop that allowed him to be manipulated into a career hitman, as his soldiers cheered him on. All signs show that Barry is sincerely trying to move on, to be liberated from a life of crime. “The wound is open, Barry, that’s a good thing,” Sally says, minutes before he’s strong-armed back into the Chechen mob by NoHo Hank, sinking him deeper into the exact pit he was trying to climb out of. Hader and Berg expertly springboard one dramatic beat into the next over a single episode, making each moment matter as it lays the foundation for what’s to come. “Barry” threads a near-perfect number of plot points across each season, a tempo that feels almost like cinema while still mastering the rules of long-form storytelling that makes TV unique.

Hader’s studious reverence for classic film is one explanation for his wunderkind control over pace and structure. Early film -– especially the 30s, 40s, and 50s -– was an era of to-the-point directness and punctuality, a cinematic book of lessons too many today have forgotten, but not Hader. This was an era dominated by sub-two-hour pleasures, when slapstick comedies, classic noir, and westerns offered a quick diversion. Hader loves these movies (and many others) and speaks of them often. In many ways, he’s a superficially unlikely cinephile, possibly the only cast member from SNL to visit the Criterion Closet and casually fanboy over Ophüls, Wilder, and Kurosawa to the press. In Season 1, “Barry” sneaks a “Yojimbo” reference into a police press conference, the way any super-nerd smuggles their niche favorite into an otherwise unrelated conversation. Perhaps the most revealing sign of Hader’s passion for the classics is when he and Colbert made dueling impressions of James Mason on “The Tonight Show.”

There’s more proof when you dig into Hader’s favorites. When he gave his top ten to Criterion in 2011, his first two selections were Kurosawa’s “Stray Dog” and “High and Low,” two police procedurals. Each is built on a simple premise –– a gun goes missing; a child is kidnapped and ransomed –– that steadily swells to complexity. A shared list of the “200 movies that inspired me to be a filmmaker” includes everything from “Blue Velvet” to Dreyer’s witch-hunt drama “The Day of Wrath.” Spielberg’s elegant and lean “Duel” was selected over his more epic efforts, while Johnny To’s madly paced triad thriller “Election,” a masterclass in precise storytelling that builds to a gut-punch climax, also appears. Each demonstrates how to tell a rich, dynamic story in a focused window with a modest budget. Incidentally, like “Barry,” these examples all infuse elements of horror into another genre.

This storytelling style often allows room for visual ideas to take center stage, an economy of a different kind. “Barry” has grown more cinematic each season, with Hader and director Hiro Murai deploying sophisticated oners and experimental use of sound. Late Season 3 offers a double-header of kinetic motorbike action and Lovecraftian beach horror, serving as Hader’s directorial crescendo. Some have joked Hader made “Barry” because he didn’t think he could make a feature, with the series as a playground to explore different kinds of visual storytelling––action, horror, comedy, dialogue-driven, dialogue-free––and now ending the show because he knows he can jump to a movie-sized screen. That sells his achievement short, in part because the focus on film language was there from the start. The opening seconds of “Barry” are entirely visual, supported by a script focusing on what we see rather than what is said. The pilot opens with a beshadowed hotel room with the bathroom light on, screen left, and the camera pans right with Barry as he walks to the other end of the room, revealing licorice-red blood-splatter and a bullseye-perfect headshot. As the camera pans back to Barry for a gag, he humorously checks his pockets as though he might’ve forgotten his keys. In a few seconds and a single uncut take, we get the mood, a shocking reveal, and physical comedy.

Like the movies of Jacques Tati, who built his screenplays around multiple planes of comic action in longer takes, “Barry’s” set-pieces often do the same, allowing beats to play out with a patience that sweetens the payoff. One of the show’s signature visual gags is the classic “violence in the background, with the oblivious character in the foreground” routine, like when Sally listens to Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song” in her car as mayhem unfolds behind her. My biggest laugh of this season is a hard-cut to a bustling Dave and Busters for a gangster keynote in an extended take, panning around a massive table of assembled hoods as NoHo Hank and Cristobal walk around the table, shifting between pitching business schemes and ordering jalapeño poppers for the table. Later, in one of the most visceral moments of the season, Hader’s camera terrifyingly sinks through the sand as NoHo Hank murders his own hired squad by locking them in a silo full of sand, swallowed into the granules. The camera lingers in near-total darkness as we hear screams and panic.

All multi-season series grow and change over time, but few have so drastically reshaped themselves as “‘Barry.” What began as a dark comedy about a hitman-made-wannabe-actor metastasized into a lacerating psychological drama with surreal-horror tendencies, vividly exploring the cyclical structures of abuse and the dark side of show business, showing how internalized trauma can so forcefully irradiate into everyone you touch, they ought to be wearing lead. Like “Ted Lasso,” “Barry” has been increasingly questioned for “not being funny,” but what replaced the punchlines was a show committed to telling a singular story in record time, each week damning the lives of each character to heartbreaking ends. In the final rug-pull of the final season’s temporal leap, the endgame has revealed itself as a punishing hunt for absolution as years have passed, embracing the classic Western noir trope of the former gunslinger pulled back for one last job to set things right. Just typing all that out; it’s a lot for any one show to cover. As most TV programming suffers from bulging filler, “Barry” ensures each thirty-minute episode feels like an entrée instead of an appetizer, celebrating the lost discipline of narrative control and story economy and proving why it ought to come back.

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Brendan Hodges
Brendan Hodges
Culture writer. Bylines at Roger Ebert, Vague Visages and The Metaplex. Lover of the B movie and prone to ramble about aspect ratios at parties.

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