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Review: The 3rd season of 'Barry' shows a far darker vision of him than seen before

DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:

"Saturday Night Live" alum Bill Hader returns to TV on Sunday. He stars in the third season of his hit HBO comedy "Barry." NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says the new season takes Hader's character to places fans might not be ready to go.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: It may sound odd to say this about a character like Bill Hader's Barry Berkman, a third-rate hitman who turned his life around when he followed a potential victim into an acting class, but the third season of HBO's "Barry" presents a far darker vision of him than fans have seen before. As the season opens, Barry is lost emotionally. He can't get work as a hitman or an actor. He's having bloody visions, and he turns to a man he once nearly framed for murder, Chechen gangster NoHo Hank, played by Anthony Carrigan.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BARRY")

ANTHONY CARRIGAN: (As NoHo Hank) You frame me using pin I gave you for being great dude, and now you come here asking me for a job?

BILL HADER: (As Barry Berkman) I don't know what to do, man. I'm in a bad spot. I'm, like - I'm kind of losing my mind, man, and I need help. I need a purpose, Hank.

CARRIGAN: (As NoHo Hank) Forgiveness is something that has to be earned. It's like that line in "Shawshank Redemption" - get rich or die trying.

DEGGANS: It's been almost three years since new episodes of "Barry" hit HBO. Fans may not remember - the second season ended with Barry's acting teacher, Gene Cousineau, learning a devastating fact - Barry killed Cousineau's girlfriend, a police detective close to uncovering his life as a hitman. Riddled by guilt, Barry decides his purpose will be to get acting work for Cousineau, played with a clueless self-absorption by Henry Winkler. But that may be tough, given his teacher's reputation as a terrible person, which Barry learns when asking two producers to give him the part.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BARRY")

HADER: (As Barry Berkman) I need you to cast my acting teacher.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) There's a process here.

HADER: (As Barry Berkman) His name is Gene Cousineau.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Gene Cousineau? That's your acting teacher?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Is that the guy that brought the loaded gun to the "Full House" audition?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Yeah. When Allison didn't cast him on "Family Ties," he called her a donkey witch.

HADER: (As Barry Berkman) Everybody deserves a second chance.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) That's not how it works.

DEGGANS: This is a theme that "Barry" has continually danced around. Is redemption possible for someone who's spent a lifetime doing terrible things? We've already seen Barry kill an old friend and a building full of Chechen and Bolivian gangsters. But there's still something more unpredictable and brutal about him this time around. Now he's threatening the show's most important characters, including Barry's girlfriend Sally, played by Sarah Goldberg, who hesitates to hire Cousineau for a streaming show she's producing.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BARRY")

SARAH GOLDBERG: (As Sally Reed) But we threw his name out for a part, and casting said no. I think the direct quote was, life's too short.

HADER: (As Barry Berkman) I'm worried about him.

GOLDBERG: (As Sally Reed) So am I. We're saying the same thing.

HADER: (As Barry Berkman) We are not saying the same thing. We are not saying the same thing.

DEGGANS: Barry also threatens Cousineau. The assassin is torn between guilt over what he's done and the impulse to kill him.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BARRY")

HENRY WINKLER: (As Gene Cousineau) You did a horrible thing, but I see your pain. Not only did I teach you to be a good actor, I taught you to be a good human being. And this is how you repay me? By killing me?

HADER: (As Barry Berkman) I love you, Mr. Cousineau.

DEGGANS: Hader and his producers are clearly pushing the envelope, testing whether audiences will stay connected to Barry as he grows more dangerous and unstable.

There are other comedic touches here. As Sally makes her show, we see clever jokes about the vapid nature of streaming, TV executives and Hollywood entertainment reporters. But the core of the story comes down to two questions - how far will Barry go to keep his secret, and can he keep his humanity, and the show's audience, while he does it?

I'm Eric Deggans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.