Bill Hader and Alec Berg premiered a really interesting show on HBO. Barry is about a hit man that joins an acting class. The class has a weird function in the show that is mostly tragic, it is what causes the fall of the character. Barry, the character, is a modern tragic hero. I am not saying Barry is a drama or drama-comedy; it is a tragedy. We misuse the word tragedy a lot. I am saying Barry is in the same genre of works of Shakespeare, Marlowe and Sophocles. I cannot believe I have to explain what tragic is! –but such as life now days and I am a terrible essayist.
Why tragedy? Why? Is it true that drama is part tragedy? Sure, Greece in the age of antiquity and in the stages of London during the reign of Tudor.I would say that is completely fair argument. Then yes, Barry wears the comedic and dramatic mask. The argument here is not exacting in precise, something that totalizes the television- wait I am sorry it is not TV it is HBO- show in to neat definitions. I am exploring Barry, and thinking about it. Barry is tragic.
We have many styles of art now, it is fair to say, so the genre of tragedy is sort of lost. The novel has many genres such as literature, parables (Calvino, Kafka, and Borges), sci-fi, fantasy, biographical, and so on. Television had some sort of explosion of creativity in the last decade; it has many many many different styles. There were sitcoms and dramas, but now there is infinite combinations out there. This goes for movies and theatre too. There are very few tragedies today.
To separate tragedies from other genres is hard, but I will say that anything that purely relies on a twist is not tragic. If there is a twist and it is revealed the work should hold up or be better. The revelation should be for the characters and not purely for the audience. Breaking Bad and Mad Men do rely on revelations but it is revealed to the audience at the same time, or it creates tension when the audience knows something that the characters do not. Breaking Bad is closer to a thriller, which is not bad at all. *Unfortunately, Hitchcock and Roman Polanski are the first directors that come to mind. Their work holds up as proof that a thriller can be artistic but Roman Polanski raped people and that is a harder more challenging essay that I am not ready for. Mad Men is like television literature; Don Draper, despite being smart, does heartbreakingly stupid things.
A side note is it weird that Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Westworld and The Sopranos purposely make it look hard. I would not say it was effortless at all, but it is intentionally looks like it is hard work. We like these shows because of that too. This is not a criticism. Barry looks effortless but is really well put together.
In Barry you can, as the audience, predict each twist and revelation. This is not lazy writing. The writers and the overall production team use various techniques in writing to foreshadow events. The acting is spot on. Of course, they use tension and other devices. They also use monologues too! The show is mostly realistic, meaning it sets up events and naturally the effects are predictable. It is not consistent like a machine, events may happen that are not predictable but the results seem real in the show. The villains or bad guys remind me of Venture Brothers villains. They exist in this world but are bad so their coexistences with the world creates absurdities. It is very much like the Coen Brothers too.
This is paired with their comedic timing and setups. This is sort of a comedy; it has all of the setups for a comedy. It would (and is) be a very dark comedy. Both creators come from a comic background. Bill Hader is a really funny comic actor. Alec Berg is from the Seinfeld side of comedy, as opposed to SNL, Upright Citizens Brigade, or Second City. Comedy is sometimes used brilliantly with Barry’s handler Fuches, played by Stephen Root. Stephen Root’s character is like the fool in Shakespeare, there are many more fools too. Fuches seems the like agent bringing more problems for Barry, but it is really Barry bring his on himself.
Barry is a monster. He is not like Walter White, but he is good at his job and hates his job. Walter White and Don Draper (or even Tony Soprano) are characters with agency true, but seek trouble willingly. It is what makes them interesting characters and they have their own motivations to do so. Barry seems naive and passive throughout the show. He makes only one decision and that is to stay in an acting class. Barry may not truly be a monster but he thinks of himself as monster. His struggle is to overcome that monstrous part in himself.
The show begins with him being depressed and coming to LA for job. His depression is what makes this character unique. He is not suffering from boredom or some sort of social ennui- that malaise we all get- heightened for dramatic value. Barry suffers from angoisse, or precisely despair. The shows arch highlights that Barry is not passive and naive but hides under that ruse to protect himself from himself. The show then, works a metaphor for dealing with depression and also the desire of redemption for a killer. It is much like Kafka’s The Metamorphosis;Gregor Samsa is both a monstrous vermin and a burden on his family. We do not get his family’s perspective we get Gregor’s perspective. Kafka was writing comedies too, and they are tragic.
Barry is a monster. He is good his job. It is funny that Bill Hader shows his best acting with a character that cannot act to save his life on stage. Barry is a good actor off the stage. Only when Barry is killing, is when Barry is not acting. Barry on the job is professional. The show hides this from us for large part. We seem him kill in the first scene and kill in self-defense. His first complete job is side tracked by the acting class or more precisely Sarah Goldman’s character Sally Reed. The audience and Barry are not sure if he stays in the class because of her or because he actually wants to act.
Sally Reed is interesting because, like almost every character in the show, she has flaws. She is broken, filled with resentment, and jealousy. She is likable because the show has everyone’s flaws out in the open. Henry Winkler’s character Gene Cousineau seems like a failed actor but his is a good acting teacher, with students of questionable talent. Sally Reed is a good actor; she has yet to make it. She might not make it at all. She is stuck practicing with people she is far better than in her craft. She is smart and likable but very flawed and self-destructive, like Barry. She is immediately attracted to Barry, like most shows or movies of lesser quality have. She hardly is a manic pixie dream girl, because she is broken like Barry. We learn that she was dating an abusive ex. By writing standard that give us insight into who Barry is. Barry is destructive.
The acting class is truly a group of warm people. I would not be surprised if Sally and Barry remain there because of the people. They are an odd family but show genuine concern for each other. Taking notes of current television comedies such as Brooklyn 99 and Parks and Recreations, the show shows the supporting cast in a warm light rather than in a cynical tone. Their father figure Gene Cousineau might seem like Henry Winkler’s character from Arrested Development, but it turns out he is just an actor trying to make money in a hard industry. The first episode points out that in Los Angeles that actors are a dime a dozen.
There is a weird formula in Seinfeldand Curb Your Enthusiasm that all the disparate parts the episode come colliding predictably in a big joke. This predictability is what makes it funny. All the threads come together in ways that are predictable to really highlight the joke. It works really well for them. Here, they use the same technique to really cause tension. In Seinfeldand Curb Your Enthusiasmyou are rewarded for your intelligence and attention. In Barry you dread what happens next. Barry dreads it too.
This is what makes Barrya tragedy. We do not root for Barry because we are tricked in to rooting for him. We root for what he wants, that is redemption. The way the show uses tension and the Seinfeld formula makes everything thing feel determined. Fate is what makes tragedies work. Barry is not bad because he wants redemption; it is what makes him the tragic hero. Tragic heroes range from Oedipus to Richard III, they mostly have some sort of flaw that brings their down fall. Oedipus was a tyrant because he did not listen which was his down fall, in a gross way. Barry did not care for himself or could not take care of himself. He joined Fuches because he was unable to take care of himself. Barry joins the acting class his first active choice in the show.