There are two shows you could probably make from the premise of Barry, the new HBO comedy co-created by and starring Bill Hader as a hitman who finds a new direction in life when he stumbles into an acting class in LA. One would be a broad Hollywood satire about the thin line separating Barry’s old profession from his new one, featuring abundant cartoonish violence and punchlines with double meaning for thespian and assassins both, all while treating Barry’s day job as a joke in and of itself. The other would be a much darker comedy that was fully aware of the evils of a career as a contract killer, and that didn’t flinch from showing it the psychic and physical cost of that job to both Barry and us.
Barry (it debuts Sunday; I’ve seen all eight episodes) opts to be both shows, sometimes simultaneously, sometimes switching off between them. Even though the two approaches seem wildly incompatible, Hader and Silicon Valley‘s Alec Berg improbably make it all hang together more often than not, though there’s enough whiplash — particularly towards the end of the season — to dumbfound viewers who came for one show but not the other.
Hader, who directs half the episodes (along with Berg, Maggie Carey, and Atlanta‘s Hiro Murai), makes good use of his time as a master impressionist on SNL, since as we meet Barry, he’s been doing a pretty bad impression of a human being for far too long. A depressed, anti-social Iraq veteran, Barry appears to leave his shabby Cleveland apartment only to perform contract killings arranged by friend of the family Fuches (Stephen Root), who has convinced him that because his targets are bad guys, he’s simply continuing the work he started in the Marines. The Chechen mob hires Barry to take out an aspiring actor who’s been sleeping with the wife of boss Goran (ubiquitous HBO character actor Glenn Fleshler), but Barry is transfixed when he wanders into the class taught by Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler), a Z-lister whose career these days involves reading for roles like Man In Back Of Line. In a roomful of wannabe actors, Barry gets a crash course in learning what it’s like to play an actual person, and loves the process even as it’s forcing him to confront things he’d rather not think about, like a workshop involving the “out out damn spot” scene from Macbeth in which he has to consider the consequences of murder from a non-sociopathic point of view for the first time in years.
“It’s called being human,” his classmate and crush Sally Reed (Sarah Goldberg) tells him. “That’s what acting is.”
“I don’t know if I can do that,” Barry admits.
The early episodes lean more towards the sillier and slightly cuddlier take on the premise. The Chechens — particularly Goran’s sidekick NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan), one of the show’s biggest comic breakouts — are a warm and gregarious bunch, even as Goran is threatening to torture and kill Fuches when there’s a complication with the hit. The show goes out of its way in the first few episodes to protect Barry from seeming any worse than his own blinkered vision of himself, and often uses name dropping to illustrate the extreme showbiz bubble in which Barry’s new friends live: Gene brags about Patrick Swayze being “a true friend,” even though they had a falling out that led to him being barred from Swayze’s funeral, while Sally psyches herself up for an acting challenge by reminding herself, “Debra Messing says you should only play parts that scare you.” Even the Chechens are presented as Hollywood wannabes, as one hit is complicated by a dramatic gesture that Goran and Hank have been workshopping for a while.
The humor is still extremely dry in a Baskets vein — my first full-throated laugh didn’t come until the fourth episode, during Barry’s attempt to play the Alec Baldwin role in the “Coffee is for closers!” scene from Glengarry Glen Ross — but the emphasis in the first half is on the absurdity of Barry trying to move between these worlds. Goldberg finds just the right balance that lets Sally be oblivious to most of the warning signs about Barry, while still recognizably human, while Winkler makes a meal out of the kind of shameless self-promoter he’s no doubt encountered hundreds of times since the Fonzie days.
Hader writes generously for them and the rest of the familiar ensemble, which includes Paula Newsome as a cop looking into the Chechens and D’Arcy Carden from The Good Place as another member of the class. But he also writes smartly and boldly for himself, recognizing that he can do more than is usually asked of him. Anyone who saw Hader and Kristen Wiig in The Skeleton Twins won’t be surprised by his dramatic chops, but what’s impressive here is the way he takes the intense physicality of his many SNL characters and turns them to a primarily dark and heavy purpose. A bit bulked up and always careful in his movements, he seems utterly plausible as a vet and a killer for hire, and he and the other directors wisely film most of Barry’s big acting breakthroughs in tight closeup, so we can see Hader’s rubbery, expressive features remold themselves into something unrecognizable to him or us. It’s a career-redefining performance.
Not every idea works — a series of recurring fantasies about Barry’s life as a successful actor married to Sally are distracting more often than not, though they feature one excellent cameo — and there are times when it feels like the only thing holding together the show’s comic and dramatic sides is the great Stephen Root, who has plenty of experience with both, and knows how to modulate a performance so it works in either. The further the season goes, the darker and more violent it becomes, until it morphs into a bleak drama in which the appearance of more ridiculous figures like Hank and Cousineau can feel a blessed relief. Barry does some things in the final episodes from which there’s no coming back, sympathy-wise, even to an audience that tuned in to watch a show about a hitman, and it should be fascinating to see both how viewers respond and how, or if, the show adjusts in a second season.
But Barry’s actions towards the end felt right and honest to me, and elevated the series over the well-executed but familiar and occasionally timid comedy of its first half. As any good acting teacher (which Gene Cousineau occasionally manages to be) will tell you, acting is about commitment, and Barry absolutely commits to the story it’s telling and what it means for the title character and the many people unfortunate enough to cross his path.