Some actors steal scenes. Some steal the whole damned show. Garry Marshall’s classic sitcom Happy Days, a celebration of 1950s Americana, was about an Archies-y bunch of kids—Richie, Joanie, Ralph, Potsy—but the audience seemed only to care for the jukebox-thumping Fonzie. The high school dropout was meant to be a supporting character but played by Henry Winkler, the Fonz became an icon of leather and coolth. The series began to revolve around him.
With each episode, the unflappable and unbeatable Fonz upped his exploits, until—in a momentous 1977 episode—the greaser donned a pair of waterskis and leapt spectacularly over a shark. This proved to be an overkill of cool, making audiences realise Happy Days was no longer snappy. This is where “jumping the shark” comes from, a phrase still used to describe shows and performers that tried too hard and overstayed their welcome.
There is no imminent danger of shark-jumping for HBO’s clever, taut series Barry (streaming in India on Disney+ Hotstar) but Winkler, who plays washed up acting teacher Gene Cousineau, has certainly been demonstrating his larcenous tendencies all over again. The ongoing third season of this assassin-comedy (created by Alec Berg and Bill Hader) feels uneven compared to the first two sensational seasons—I have gushed about Barry here earlier—but a major part of that can be put down to Winkler creating a character so unfairly compelling that he is invariably pulling focus away from the titular protagonist played by Hader.
Hader’s Barry is a troubled war veteran turned assassin turned actor turned—in this season—into an aimless boyfriend of a TV show creator, a man who occasionally takes hitman gigs via Craigslist. He’s restless, unsure of himself and where he might want to head, and Hader—who continues to impress as the director of most of the episodes—may not be equipped as an actor to handle a character with most of his conflicts on the inside. Despite his efficiency as a killer, Barry has begun to feel uninteresting. Dull, even.
This is, of course, because he’s cornered by three devastatingly good performers dealing exclusively in knockout moments: Stephen Root as Fuches, Barry’s old trainer and perpetual nemesis, Anthony Carrigan as NoHo Hank, the kind of gangster overlord who knows his emojis and his French Tucks, and, of course, Winkler. It is hard not to feel let down when the story shifts from these fantastical characters to Barry. Even Barry’s vision board—featuring Metallica, Twix wrappers, Michael Jordan and Call Of Duty—is depressing.
Winkler is particularly superb. He has fleshed Cousineau into a beautifully complicated and fumbling character, a bereaved man with a messy past of his own, trying to do better and make amends in his own, chaotic way. From his frequently pursed lips to the hands he moves like a flight attendant while delivering an acting “masterclass”, Winkler has made Cousineau such a flawed-yet-fragile character that it’s hard to side with anyone causing him pain. It’s easier to forgive cold-blooded murders, harder to let go of the way Barry keeps breaking Cousineau’s heart.
While not quite achieving the tonal fluidity of the early two seasons—particularly the second masterful season—Barry still feels cool. A smashing and highly cinematic chase sequence culminates in a gunfight at a used-car lot, shot entirely in a wide shot, briefly (and impressively) evoking — of all films — Jacques Tati’s marvellous Playtime. Characters speak of disturbing, soul-crushing mind games they have learnt in the military—and on subreddits. Streaming TV executives declare that shows where someone eats dessert in the first two minutes of the first episode (just like in the first episode of this season of Barry) always do well, as do shots of kittens, Central Park and Dev Patel.
(This steadfast dependence on an all-knowing algorithm eventually leads to an upcoming series being described as a “much-awaited cupcake romcom featuring Dev Patel”, which, let’s be honest, I’ll probably watch.)
Hader has always been the comedian and co-creator standing in the centre—quite like Jerry Seinfeld surrounded by geniuses Jason Alexander, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Michael Richards— but while Barry used to be more of an audience surrogate, reacting to weird folk and situations exploding around him, he is now pivoting into a strangely unlikeable character.
This feels jarring after Barry has displayed such affability early in the series, but—given his war trauma, his psychological issues, his frequently uncorked rage and his inconsistent emotional understanding—it makes much more sense for him to be someone scary, someone we should back away from. Making him a good guy would be easy and unrealistically convenient — like skiing over a big fish. Barry, instead, has gone from being the hero to becoming a cautionary tale. He is the statutory warning label on the cigarette packet. TV shows glamorise violence so often that it makes sense to remind the viewer of the simple truth. Killing kills.
Raja Sen is a film and TV critic, screenwriter and the author of ‘The Best Baker In The World’ (2017), a children’s adaptation of ‘The Godfather’.