Emphasis is on the dark as “Barry,” Bill Hader and Alec Berg’s dark comedy about a hapless hit man with Hollywood dreams, begins its fourth and final season. It takes a while for the comedy to catch up, but rest assured that the show’s trademark blend of absurd brutality and hilarious human frailty is re-established by the second episode, which premieres along with the season opener on HBO Sunday, April 16.
This makes sense since Hader’s Barry Berkman was arrested at the end of Season 3 and is entering prison at the start of this eight-chapter run. After some weak humor with a starstruck guard, the story zeroes in on Barry’s pain. It’s emotional at first as he realizes his beloved acting teacher, Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler), conspired with the intimidating Jim Moss (Robert Wisdom) to set him up. Barry did, after all, murder the former’s girlfriend/latter’s daughter, but in his mind he’s the victim of betrayal. Psychic discomfort is soon matched by physical agony, as both Barry and his longtime handler Monroe Fuches (Stephen Root), who’s in the same correctional facility, suffer horrific beatings along with well-founded paranoia that they could be assassinated at any moment.
“I never should have taken that acting class,” Barry apologizes to the man most responsible for his troubles. “If I hadn’t tried to understand myself, we wouldn’t be here.”
As usual, Barry and Monroe’s moods swing from expressions of deep love to selfish treachery, a theme that’s explored in multiple relationships this season.
Barry’s actress girlfriend Sally (Sarah Goldberg) has the widest emotional arc of all. She’s on a plane home to Joplin, Mo., when news of the arrest breaks. On the ground, her phone blows up with concerned messages, and she’s in another world while her mom tries to make conversation during the drive from the airport.
“The guy I was dating in L.A. killed my acting teacher’s girlfriend,” Sally mutters in shocked monotone, followed by a panicky intimate revelation that no mother should hear. Yet Sally’s soon back in L.A., trying to sort out her feelings for Barry and revive a career damaged by last season’s “entitled c—t girl” viral video. Her radioactive hiring prospects now compounded by also having dated a serial killer, she’s advised by former agent Lindsay (Jessy Hodges) that her only future is in podcasting or, at best, a reality show.
“You have two high-profile strikes against you, and on top of that you have integrity. I’m so sorry,” Lindsay commiserates.
As that pitch-perfect line indicates, the satire of show business and the values it distorts is sharp as ever, even as this season of “Barry” takes aim at more urgent matters of life and death. Gene and several other characters continue to operate from the lizard parts of their brains that are always thinking about stardom. For meta fun, a couple of Oscar-winning directors make amusing cameos as either outlandish characters, or as themselves in creatively compromised positions. Real stars also populate small, predominantly blundering parts.
All this as Barry’s stressed-out mind goes deeper into the types of fantasy realms that emerged last season. A dusty plain represents his childhood, and there’s a genius visual echo in how it comes to symbolize shaky dreams of rebirth, reinvention and redemption. Hader, who won a DGA Award for last year’s sublime freeway chase episode “710N,” directed all of this final season’s segments, and his staging and compositions have only become more masterfully refined.
While Barry’s hopes may be built on dust, for NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan) and his lover Cristobal (Michael Irby), it’s sand. The former criminals (or are they?) latch onto the ludicrous — but perhaps also lucrative — idea of applying their drug-smuggling expertise to importing construction grade sand for luxury buildings. This has mixed results for them, to say the least. It’s a win for viewers, though, especially fans of comic relief criminal Hank. The Chechen not-so-bad boy enters bleak chambers of the soul we never thought he could access. There’s one extended sequence in which Carrigan gives his most varied performance yet, enhanced by sleight-of-hand camerawork for maximum dramatic impact.
Somehow, a running Dave & Buster’s gag keeps paying off, too. Have I mentioned that Hader’s a world-class director?
And when Hader’s not playing his victim, dumb bozo or apology cards, he calls up Barry’s scary dude persona to terrifying effect. But there’s a new bet on setting his life right going on with the character as well. It’s not just playacting this time, though acting is a fundamental part of the effort, and perhaps its fatal flaw. The show’s ongoing joke that Barry can’t change what he is takes both subtler and more desperate turns this season, and if it winds up that a killer is all he ever really will be, at least we can see a credible alternative to that.
The series’ always nimble plotting doles out similar developments to other key characters, as players big and small pursue aspirations until they crash into a wall of reality — or, the rare times they’re lucky, leap over it. Most also get opportunities to express and act upon their better natures, inevitably leading to tragic/wry examples of how their own personalities block their way. Reversals of fortune drop several times per episode with consistent ingenuity; it makes you wish that Mitch, the beignet-baking sage, would come back to impart much-needed wisdom for everyone to ignore. Few of this season’s new characters are as memorable, though one could see Ellyn Jameson’s Kristen, a sweet but incompetent actress whose statuesque looks win her jobs anyway, in a spinoff series with Sally.
What may come afterward is hardly the point, though. Critics haven’t seen the final episode yet, but “Barry” is on a course toward a profound conclusion that should stand out in the annals of violent sitcoms. Hader and company have laid the foundation for an existential reckoning of epic human proportions. And knowing these dim-bulb mobsters and narcissistic actors as well as we do, it should also be funny as hell.
“Barry” Season 4 premieres Sunday, April 16, at 10 ET/PT on HBO and will be available to stream at 10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT on HBO Max.