Story Pile: Barry

Barry is the Breaking Bad anime.

NO no no no don’t go hang on I mean it.

Since I assume you’re not familiar, Barry is a 2019 comedy-drama series made by a guy called Bill Hader, who’s from this show I’ve never seen called Saturday Night Live that apparently, a lot of people care about. I dunno, whatever, what’s important is that it’s this TV series about a heavily traumatised neurodivergent ex-soldier who is emotionally manipulated by an exploitative family friend into making large piles of money as a hitman, of which he sees almost nothing. One day on the way to do a job he encounters an acting class and is seized by a want to do the thing he sees other people doing, ie, pretending to be people.

What follows is a really interesting and initially very funny story that contrasts this highly skilled, incredibly dangerous man with bad social skills and his attempts to take on a task that requires him to emotionally connect with relative strangers, all of whom are self-obssessed arseholes. With those pieces in place, you get most every second-tier very good actor in Hollywood who’s done great work but never been a leader and let it go. Think a bit like how Leverage gave every character actor room to flex as hammy villains, or the way Arrested Development was full of comedians that other comedians loved.

Bill Hader has described how the entire hook of Barry derives from his own success on Saturday Night Live, where he was very successful at a thing that he didn’t want to keep doing, because doing it made him nervous and anxious. That is, it’s the story of an actor’s experience, given a metaphor to play out across the narrative of an actor’s experience. It’s a good hook, it’s fun, it allows for a lot of interesting references, and, thanks to the way pop culture is generated in this space, Barry gets to basically huff farts like an episode of Family Guy, but in a really good way, a way that sometimes mentions theatre so you can feel smart.

It’s not a comedy? Not really, not in the way that it presents itself. There are some really funny episodes and there’s comedy derived from the nonsense of the story events, but Barry uses comedy more like a sabot; the story is a very serious, very dark tragedy, and part of that tragedy is derived from the way the central character imagines he can just pretend his way into normality, rather than accept reality as it is. What I mean to say is that you’re going to start watching it because it’s funny and keep watching it remembering when it was funny and in the last episode of Season 3 you’re going to realise you just watched 30 minutes of no jokes and you feel like you just got punched in the gut. It’s funny, but it’s very serious. Black comedy doesn’t really feel like it quite counts for it here, because the overall trajectory of the story isn’t funny. It’s not building up to some punchline.

I would say that Barry’s biggest weakness is the same as Bojack Horseman‘s, where it’s foundationally a story about, well, whatever, told through the medium of Things That Happened To The Kind Of People Who Get To Live In LA And Make TV Shows. That’s not a serious knock on it but man, it seems really full of inside baseball bullshit and it’s very good at conveying a reality of dealing with the awfulness within the tv-making industry but it’s very important to remember it’s a reality. I don’t know how real it is. I don’t know how true this is to the actual life and experience of living and working in Los Angeles. It might be that a lot of the people in that space are nice, but the successful ones are shitheads so they assume all the people they met along the way are also shitheads. I can’t tell. I’m so far removed from it, and the people in the position to tell me what it’s like are definitionally, good at convincing me of things that aren’t true.

What the fuck, right?

But back to that original premise. That Barry is the anime of Breaking Bad. I don’t mean in that they tell the same plot, because they don’t, even if you want to draw deliberate parallels between two male leads with a skill and a gift that doesn’t make them happy and who have to reconcile that hurting other people does make both of them feel really good, that’s not what I’m getting at here.

Breaking Bad is the live action TV show that white people would not shut up about for a few years. It was a realistic (seeming) gritty narrative about a thing that felt very realistically like it could happen; that all the details of the setting and the people involved could, more or less, happen that way, and the reasons for why related to entirely reasonable, believable shadow economies.

Where Barry steps into this space is the same believable, reasonable shadow economies and therefore, the higher grades of what people would do for the scale of money in those spaces, but all the characters are hyper-real, amplified, and concentrated. Barry isn’t a hitman who scares people, he’s the goddamn apocalypse. Cousineau’s not just a figure with connections, he’s known by everyone and they kinda hate him. Characters who are reasonable are reasonable in a way that’s literally shocking, and people’s ideas of solutions to problems are amplified and ridiculous even as they are reasonable within the context of this amplified world.

It can’t be as elastic as anime, per se, but the reactions, the narrowcast attention, the entire memeplex is the anime version of what Breaking Bad is.

Show’s real good, I liked it, I kinda don’t need more of it, but hopefully what’s coming is the last of it.