When “Mr Inbetween” premiered a year ago this September, it was enveloped by the rather large shadow of another half-hour hitman series, “Barry.” Bill Hader’s first season had wrapped months prior to Scott Ryan’s FX debut, but it was in the middle of what proved to be a very successful Emmys run and comparisons between the two dark comedies were unavoidable. They still are, as “Barry” continues to dominate cultural conversation (on its way to another likely score at the Emmys) and “Mr Inbetween” hopes to find its own space within the ever-growing TV sphere.
To be clear, it deserves one. The sharply written and well-performed Australian series isn’t in “Barry’s” upper-echelon of comedy, but it’s smart, wickedly funny, and, in Season 2, purposeful. And much of its new direction can be found in the clear differences between this bald, mustachioed hitman (played by Ryan) and his tall, lanky counterpart (played by Hader).
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Barry doesn’t enjoy the violence. He doesn’t seek it out or rely upon it. He doesn’t want you to start a fight with him, but Ray does. He doesn’t want to overwork himself, but he absolutely picks fights, knowing he can win, and has a glint in his eye when the time comes to throw a punch, knee a groin, or toss someone through a car window. Barry wants to get out of his hitman job because he’s generally unfulfilled by it. Ray doesn’t want to get out of anything. But in Season 2, he’s put on a path toward realizing how much personal harm he’s doing to himself while inflicting so much pain on others.
Throughout the first three episodes, “Mr Inbetween” is ready to make you a little more uncomfortable watching Ray. While Season 1 featured its fair share of disturbing moments, creator and star Ryan — along with director and producer Nash Edgerton, and producer Michele Bennett — position Ray as saying the wrong thing, believing the wrong thing, or taking the wrong thing away from a specific life lesson. He hasn’t exactly turned a corner yet, but he’s starting to be confronted about his anger by people he can’t easily ignore.
During a group session to keep his violence in check, Ray is called out for having misogynistic thought patterns. He responds with his own spin on the tired old line, “I have a daughter, how can I be a misogynist?” The counselor doesn’t have a great answer, but he doesn’t back down and the thought is lodged in Ray’s brain, as well as the audience’s. Later, he finds out his daughter, Brittany (Chika Yasumura) is being bullied at school, and tells her to stand up for herself — and then some. “You can’t make people like you, but you can make them fear you,” Ray says. “If people don’t respect you, that’s when you make them fear you.”
This is clearly bad advice — intimidation is not the only answer to provocation, nor is it the morally sound answer — and it’s going to catch up to Ray through the person he loves most in this world. But before “Mr Inbetween” goes too far off the deep end, letting you write Ray off as an uncaring part of the problem, Ryan lets the audience into how this man who makes his living by beating people up, knocking them off, or otherwise eliminating problems became so good at those things.
At the end of the second episode, Ray shares a devastating childhood story about being abused, and how that bullying turned him into a bully himself. Obviously he doesn’t describe himself as a bully — he’s the victim — but it’s clear to his listening girlfriend, Ally (Brooke Satchwell), what he became. “I wasn’t looking for trouble as a kid, but I learned there are people who will take and take until there’s nothing left of you,” Ray says. Now, as an adult, he lives by that philosophy, except the people he’s pissing off aren’t just bigger and stronger than him — they’re able to take things from him.
How Ray responds to the coming conflicts, internally and externally, will shape his future as well as the series’. He could become a better, kinder, and, yes, gentler man… but those helpful psychological changes could put him in harm’s way at work. “Mr Inbetween” has set itself up to tell an important story about the toxicity of bullying, as well as its long-lasting and wide-ranging effects. Given how well Ryan seems to understand this character, and how purposefully the creative team shapes this story, it’ll be worth keeping up to see what they have to say. It may not be as loud or lovable as “Barry,” but there’s room for both stories on TV, especially when they’re this distinct.
“Mr Inbetween” Season 2 premieres Thursday, September 12 at 10 p.m. on FX.