Forget Game of Thrones, Barry is HBO’s – and TV’s – Best Show

Game of Thrones might be HBO's biggest show, but it's not its best.

Game of Thrones is the biggest show on TV, and it has every right to be. For 8 seasons now it has grown into a mammoth global hit because of its tremendous writing, intimate character drama and increasingly epic scale. It’s one of my favourite shows, not just of recent years but probably ever. However, this most recent season, the conclusion to the entire series, has been subject to a decline in quality. I don’t think it has had the nosedive in quality as many now seem to claim, but the series is ending a grade or two below its previous efforts. I think all the writers on the show, especially Bryan Cogman, are incredibly talented, but the fault does lie in the writing. The truncated season of six episodes is the cause of the majority of the problems, with the epic narrative needing at least the usual ten episodes to satisfyingly conclude all the character and story arcs remaining. This has led to rushed motivations and gaps in logic that could easily be ironed out if the writers had more time. I’ve seen the creators and lead writers of the show, Benioff and Weiss, get a lot of flack online and I feel most of it is unjustified. If it was their decision to have a shorter season then they deserve some blame but I feel, with the time allotted to them, they are doing an admirable job. The point is, while still massively enjoyable and entertaining, Game of Thrones is not as good as it once was. The former king of TV has been usurped by a much less grandiose show. A show produced by the same network no less: Barry.

Currently six episodes into its second season, HBO’s Barry is a half-hour comedy drama/thriller that is best show of all three of those genres currently on television. It features Bill Hader as the titular Barry Berkman, a hitman trying to leave his violent life behind to pursue a career in acting. Hader is incredible in the role and not just nails the comedy as expected, but is also surprisingly believable as a war veteran and assassin. His wide eyes and manic energy seemingly not just a tool for his comedy, but his emotional and dramatic scenes too. It seems like Hader can do everything in front of and behind the camera. He’s a co-creator of the show and a prominent writer and director too. I’m eager to see how he branches out into more dramatic work, maybe starting with IT Chapter 2 this September.

It’s not just Hader that deserves credit though because the supporting cast is fantastic. Sarah Goldberg turns the type of role that is often under-served and makes it a major dramatic lynchpin of the series, Henry Winkler won a well-deserved Emmy for his role as acting coach Gene Cousineau and Anthony Carrigan steals every scene he’s in (much like he did in Gotham) as Chechen gangster Noho Hank. My favourite however is probably the wonderful Stephen Root as Barry’s former handler Fuches. At one moment it seems like he’s some sort of demonic force ushering Barry down a dark and dangerous path for his own greed, and then the next he’s goofily falling down a hill and getting lost in the woods in an extended almost-slapstick sequence. It’s this balance of drama and comedy, of tones, that makes Barry as successful and as enjoyable as it is.

Season 2 is maybe not as clean and tight as the first but you can tell the creatives are actively pushing the show into unexpected places to expand what the series can be. It’s handling some tricky subject matter with relative ease and these risks are paying off to create a much wilder and arguably better (but occasionally messier) second season. For example, a couple of weeks ago there was a discussion of whether Avengers: Endgame or Game of Thrones had the better battle, with the film and the show’s Battle of Winterfell episode premiering over the same weekend. My answer: Barry. Barry’s fifth episode of the current season aired that same week and was just one elongated fight scene and the following aftermath, feeling at times like Kill Bill. Usually the show balances the criminal and actor plotlines, with Barry being the fulcrum of both. But this episode, titled “ronny/lily”, was purely Barry and Fuches on a hit gone wrong. It’s a weird episode, unlike any before and after it, and could easily have not gelled with the style of the rest of the show, with the bizarre unspeaking antagonist his almost supernaturally-talented blackbelt daughter feeling like an element that shouldn’t fit with what we know of the series. But writer/director/star of the episode Bill Hader somehow makes it work and it’s probably the highlight of not just the season or the entire show so far, but of any television aired this year.

I was unsure of Barry’s return. The first season ended in an interesting place that could have acted as series finale. That season had great character drama and big laughs that can work as a contained thriller, and returning to the well and continuing the story could have ended in disappointment, but Barry is a show that just keeps surprising me. It has unmatched character drama, apart from maybe Better Call Saul, but manages to do everything it does with only eight 30-minute episodes a year while also being the best comedy on TV too. Game of Thrones is coming to an end in just a few days’ time but hopefully Barry – which has already been renewed for a third season – will stay at the top of its game for years to come. It has inherited the title of HBO’s best series from the fantasy show, and The Leftovers before that, and if you’re not currently watching it then it’s time to start.

Have you watched Barry? What do you make of Game of Thrones’ final season? Let me know in the comments and geek out with me about TV, movies and video-games on Twitter @kylebrrtt.

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