The Barry season 4 premiere is more of a harrowing tone poem than comedy, but a wonderful spotlight on Bill Hader.
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When Barry first premiered on HBO in 2018, it had a pretty irresistible high-concept comedy premise: Saturday Night Live all-star Bill Hader as a depressed assassin who gets bit by the acting bug. Hader could stretch his dramatic chops while still giving viewers the weirdly intense comedy bits he had become known for, but along the way, it has become apparent that this show has a diminishing interest in any kind of overt humor in favor of dark, harrowing storytelling about PTSD and ego. The Barry season 4 premiere episode has less comedy than any previous installment of the series, but remarkably, is no less quality TV for that.
The Barry season premiere begins just after the events of the previous finale, with the increasingly vacant Barry Berkman finally getting arrested for the murder of Detective Janice Moss (Paula Newsome) all the way back in season 1. Thanks to his acting coach-turned-nemesis Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler) and Moss’s terrifying father Jim Moss (Robert Wisdom), Barry is behind bars, where it becomes quickly apparent that the prison guards are no less susceptible than anyone else in Los Angeles to the draw of star power.
However, the L.A. correctional facilities are nothing compared to the mental prison where Barry finds himself trapped. After his near-death experience in season 3 (in which he found himself standing on a cold, bleak beach surrounded by the dozens of people he has killed before something terrible appeared in the sky off-screen), Barry is a hollow shell of the man he used to be, which wasn’t all that stable in the first place. It is a testament to Hader’s perpetually underrated ability to play things tense and disturbed with minimal drama that he remains riveting even when at the absolute end of his rope.
On other hand, Gene seems to be doing pretty great, appearing egotistically satisfied with finally having caught Barry and achieving his Hollywood success story. Whatever emotional growth that the acting coach achieved last season seems to have been replaced by his old longings for fame and narcissistic self-validation. It’s not a pretty sight.
For her part, Barry’s girlfriend Sally (Sarah Goldberg) is not doing too great herself, having left L.A. for her hometown of Joplin, Missouri after beating a man to death with an aluminum bat. It quickly becomes clear that Joplin is not a place of emotional safety for her, with her parents seeming unable to understand her and Sally unable to explain herself without going into a screaming fit.
NoHo Hank (Anthony Corrigan) and his former rival in the drug trade/current boyfriend Cristobal (Michael Irby) have relocated to an idyllic retreat in Sante Fe, which has some of the closest things to some moments of levity in the Barry season premiere. At the very least, you have to give it up to Corrigan for making sitting stock-still in an incredible outfit of gold chains and a big hat the funniest thing in the world.
But the Barry season premiere resembles a visual tone poem more than it does a comedy (even one that has previously had some pretty dark moments). Barry is nearly silent throughout the episode, lurking in his prison cell and only coming alive for moments of pure rage and self-loathing. He also is experiencing regular hallucinations and what seem to be flashbacks to his first meetings with Fuches (the great Stephen Root) and his own brush with near death.
But are they really? The Barry season premiere (directed by Bill Hader himself) does not make it clear what is actually real around the lead character, with even his own reactions to seeing his childhood self playing with toy soldiers in his prison cell or seeing Sally in the prison yard muted and unsurprised. At times, it seems like the episode is an extended journey through Barry’s crumbling mind, which is pretty dark for a show that began with him awkwardly offering to shoot someone in the penis, only to have everyone question why anyone would want that.
The Barry season premiere seems fully committed to showing the consequences of violence on the people who perpetuate it, to the point of leaving our protagonist in a bloody, beaten pulp on the floor of a prison bathroom. Things were never going to go all that well for Barry Berkman in Los Angeles, but now, being in his head has never seemed worse.