Hey! Thanks for reading! Just a reminder that I wrote this some years ago, and may have much more complicated feelings about this topic than I did when I wrote it. Happy to elaborate, feel free to reach out to me! 😄
🎵 The song for this post is Tommy the Cat, by Primus. 🎵
I won't sell the show as perfect; every show has to make choices about how much disbelief they need you to suspend to tell their story in the style they'd like, and Barry might ask you to make a few leaps too large. It's also got one female lead and almost exclusively White leads; these usually aren't the ingredients of something I love this much.
It scratches a lot of my itches, and speaks to a Pablo that few people in my current life knew or ever got to see. It speaks to a million little narratives about being a person who finds refuge and growth in theater. It generates fantastic comedy out of the horrifying search for purpose. It's Henry Winkler giving the defining performance of his very storied career. There's never a wasted scene.
Men who are relatable, and when it's a problem
I watched Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind last year and while it held up, there was a charming, anachronistic 2004-ness to it: CRT monitors, cordless telephones, Clementine working at a Borders. Especially: Joel (Jim Carrey's character) was a misunderstood, quiet and sensitive brooding man, the kind that other misunderstood, quiet and sensitive brooding men would see themselves in. While Garden State is credited for the quintissential Manic Pixie Dream Girl, Zach Braff's character also gave us a shining example of this other early-aughts trend: of men who are too sensitive and intelligent to give back to whatever environment they're in, which I don't think aged particularly well.
Tons of stories are centered on dudes you're not supposed to like, but a huge part of the audience misses the memo and lionizes them anyway: Fight Club and The Wolf of Wall Street are major examples, where they're showing you a horrible caricature of someone and a bunch of dudes think "man, that guy's a badass and I want that." 500 Days of Summer and Breaking Bad had this, too; Rick and Morty's fanbase is famous for its dudes who relate to being Rick when they're actually Jerry.
I bring all this up to say that I heavily distrust plots centered around Tortured Flawed Men Who Do Horrible Things But Are Secretly Nice? Women don't really get to be flawed; being an unlikable woman is a show-killer (name a hit show with a woman anti-hero). I'm not sure if Barry, the character, will hold up, or even if I want him to. Especially after Season 2, where they really look at questions of "can a person change?" and "what does it take to properly account for your past?", there's a part of me that thinks we can't just let characters get away with shit just because we're steered into liking them.
And what characters! I so badly want Noho Hank to be in my life, all the time. Gene Cousineau is both an attentive, self-aware, motivating down-to-earth theater teacher who fills his students with purpose and understands his role as offering a form of therapy while also being the quintissential theater grifter taking advantage of (and looking down on) his clueless, hopeless students. I lost my shit when I saw the book he peddles to them is called Hit Your Mark and Say Your Lines.
I read Bissel van der Kolk's (who, oof, watch out) The Body Keeps the Score last year, which I found a pretty useful resource for thinking about trauma and how we can treat it. I was initially surprised to see one of the later chapters was about the therapeutic use of theater. It makes perfect sense, and Barry captures this: theater is an incredibly effective way to find a community, to focus on yourself and your emotions, and to "try on" different personalities and affectations. Scene study gives you a framework for understanding how people communicate with each other, where we "leak" signal about who we are and what we value, and how to think about motivations and form actions around it. The work I did in theater for 7-8 years of Middle School/High School/college was central to how I organize my thoughts and interpret the world.
Like watching a child learn the alphabet can remind you of that slice of time before you had all of written language available to you, so much about the acting class in Barry reminds me of a reality that was absolutely mine (the sense of community, the purpose), while also being one I narrowly avoided (the uncertainty of doing it "for real" in a capitalist society). Everyone being polite with industry contacts while also insecure in their talents and potentionally on the brink of financial ruin. Being told that you're at the top of your craft in a scene where you've thoroughly psychologically tortured yourself. The jealousy (Sally's monologue helping Barry run lines for his feature audition in S2 speaks to me, man). It's particularly fun to see excellent actors perform being beginning actors.
I have mostly negative feelings about nostalgia. Not that I don't feel it, or even that I find it unpleasant, just: I feel like celebrating the decade when you were a teenager and insisting it was a particularly special time in history is really unself-aware: it wasn't globally special, it just mattered a lot to you. And that's fine! Enjoy it! But challenge yourself to find that meaning, today. Put yourself in the head of a teenager learning about the world today, and listen to the pop the kids are making.
With that said… I miss theater. And I miss loving it, knowing I was good at it, feeling committed to a purpose that way. Feeling like I was surrounded by peers and we'd make a dent in the world with it. I'm unclear if the soil of my life after my early 20's has produced a beanstalk that climbed that high; I think I'm good enough at computers, but I haven't located the feeling of greater purpose of community, just really fun ways of thinking.
I don't know if you'll enjoy this as much as I did; I'm also sure other people who are or were in theater will disagree strongly with me on what show biz is really like, or its representation in Barry. But consider giving it a look! I found myself forgetting to breathe at times.
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