Just because I defended, apparently with a lot of blowback from Coastal Elites (of which I suppose I at least once qualified as), WBD’s informed decision to remove the letters HBO from MAX as of this summer doesn’t mean I don’t understand what and why shows worthy of being on it are so beloved. In its best moments, HBO has successfully developed a full block of shows for its Sunday night.
A provocative and insightful piece, unsurprisingly authored by THE RINGER’s Ben LIndbergh and Rob Arthur, released on the network’s golden anniversary last fall explored in depth the rationale and the roots for HBO’s strategy to make Sunday night a destination night, now a full quarter-century old. As HBO’s onetime and long-tenured head of programming Michael Lombardo explained, who spent 33 of those 50 years in the network’s employ, explained:
“Sunday was a wasteland. Broadcast networks didn’t do anything on Sunday night. Football wasn’t quite the thing it is. And so it was counterprogramming: ‘Let’s see if we can make Sunday night our place.’”
It took the rocket-ship like success of a criminal named Tony Soprano to start HBO on this path. As the authors and Lombardo continued:
The Sopranos put its stamp on Sundays in such a way that the eve of the workweek started to connote a certain type of televised entertainment. “Because of Sopranos, [Sunday] became synonymous with important viewing,” Lombardo says. “It became synonymous with prestige viewing. … Sopranos put a flagpole for HBO in the public’s mind. If HBO was going to launch something significant, it was going to be on Sunday night.” And unless other networks wanted to concede that valuable screen time, they would have to meet HBO on its chosen battleground.
A fascinating and detailed chart that maps out the IMdB qualitative ratings week-by-week of HBO Sunday nights shows exactly when and where the peaks and valleys of this block strategy occurred. Last night, what may be yet another peak began. It’s both apropos and ironic that, on the heels of the launch of the final season of yet another flagship and award-winning hour, SUCCESSION, that the final spoke in this spring’s lineup, the also acclaimed dark comedy BARRY–another show that features a criminal as its protagonist– began its final season last night, as SUCCESSION’s lead-out and as the lead-in to the network’s long-running comedic news recap show LAST WEEK TONIGHT WITH JOHN OLIVER. I had somehow ignored BARRY for its first three seasons, and in hindsight, I lament that. If you had given me the logline of Stefan and Fonzie escalate Christopher Moltisanti’s pursuit for a Hollywood career and make you root for a hitman, I probably should have been invested a long time ago.
Shame on me for waiting until last night to sample it. But I came along at a really opportunistic time. As Angie Han wrote in her HOLLYWOOD REPORTER review, we find the show’s title character in a new setting which, ironically, has finally given him the venue for his desired celebrity to be acknowledged:
As Barry returns, its title character (Bill Hader), still reeling from the events of the season three finale, finds himself screaming at his own reflection in a prison bathroom. A guard — who happens to have been a fan of Barry’s work in Laws of Humanity — catches him and tries to provide a bit of reassurance.
“I know they say you did a bad thing. But I’m sure you’re not a bad guy,” he offers. It’s a tempting idea, and one Barry’s clung to all series long as the bodies pile up behind him. This time, though, he rejects the idea so forcefully he’s beaten bloody by the initially sympathetic guard. For a moment, it almost seems he’s been able to see himself clearly for who he truly is, how much damage he’s truly left in his wake.
Of course, it doesn’t last. In its fourth and final season, the HBO dramedy lays out some of its most thrilling and most ambitious moves yet, pushing its characters into territory we scarcely could have imagined at the start of their journeys. But it never loses sight of its darkest, funniest and most fundamental truth: Wherever these people go, there they are.
As with Succession and Better Call Saul, Barry seems to have taken its looming end as a challenge to dial up its ambitions, and fine-tune its established strengths. I’d argue that the show stopped really being a comedy at least a year ago, no matter what the Emmy nominations say. But this season’s first few chapters recapture some of the playful, almost sweet spirit of earlier installments. (Only on Barry would a pair of mobsters launch their latest scheme from “the bestest place on the earth” — a Dave & Buster’s in Torrance.)
And as Steve Greene (oh, am I allowed to use that name?!) of IndieWire chimed in, it’s not merely Hader and his acclaimed co-star Henry Winkler that are shining in this last round-up:
For a long time, “Barry” felt like it existed in its own little bubble. Even with the flashbacks to Berkman hit jobs and the references to past Gene Cousineau ego disasters and Sally making an entire TV show about her hometown and Fuches’ goatherd retreat and organized crime elements from multiple different countries mobilizing their forces, they all seemed to arrive on the doorstep of a self-contained North Hollywood. All those forces have been trying to worm their way inside the perimeter that the show’s title character seemed, for a time, to have set up for himself.
We don’t really see that Berkman mind purgatory in “Yikes,” the first episode of “Barry” Season 4. But we do hear it, right before he endures a physical punishment that’s been years in the making. Now he has the outward damage to pair with the inner damage, self-inflicted in a different kind of way. He’s not alone. One by one, each of the main players in this series get a chance to start off this season by forging a new path or simply taking the one laid out for them. Over the course of a half hour, all of them refuse in their own way.
Each come with their own personal horrors. Sally (Sarah Goldberg) is stuck between two extremes for this entire episode. Some of the fluffiest, most soothing clouds you’ll ever see on a TV screen are smushed up against a nightmare vision of the man who almost killed her, climbing up Bob-like behind the seat in front of her. She has a panic attack set to the twinkling sounds of Roxette. Her father is one tick shy of a cartoonishly supportive father and her mother is one away from a heartless maternal robot. You can see her desperately wanting some middle ground between LA and Joplin.
In addition to learning more about Sally’s dysfunctional upbringing, there are new plotlines for Winkler’s Cousineau, the tormented Hank and his paramour Cristobal and the irresistably over-the-top NoHo Hank. I’m late to this game, so I assume anyone reading this who knows these plotlines better than I can appreciate my excitement about learning more about their pasts, and, certainly, how they wrap up over the next two months.
But I would never have even found a way to watch this fine work were it not for its positioning in an actual night of destination counterprogramming where the end of what is rapidly becoming one of the most gripping series finale seasons in history, SUCCESSION (if you thought the roller coaster of last week couldn’t be approached, youd be wrong) opportunistically led into a few moments where the violent and deserved opening scene caught my attention. I’m not someone who navigates tiles as well as many others, and sometimes I’m simply too lethargic to even try and navigate a GUI to find a particular show. And with the impending demise of both SUCCESSION and BARRY, as well as the climate of change that Yosemite Zas and the investment community are demanding, while there seem to be a number of candidates for these pivotal time slots, the corporate priority of building out Sunday night is diminishing. And I’m honestly not sure franchise extensions will provide, at least for me, any initial incentive to seek these shows out. They will either have to be live off their existing fan bases–of which I am not a part of many–or get enough buzz to capture my attention. I’m sure fans of EUPHORIA or HOUSE OF THE DRAGON might disagree, and I suppose when CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM’s next (final?) season premieres I’ll show up. But the concurrent ending of two worthy successors to the glory days of the shows Lombardo stacked into compelling, captivating lineups is making that task all the more difficult.
Yep, I’ll be along for this wave of IMdB aggregated genius, though I can’t guarantee I’ll always be watching in real time. But I’ll definitely be setting my DVR for them one after the other after the other. The way it used to be before on-demand reshaped the paradigm. And may not be for much longer.
As any incarcerated person can attest, being chosen out of a lineup isn’t always a desired result. We’ll see if what is left of HBO can create another one just as worthy as this one.
Until next time…