Barry isn’t the show you think it is. A depressed hitman accidentally joins an acting class while following one of his targets and decides to pursue acting full time – a clichéd fish-out-of-water story that can cheaply blend action with comedy. It has the type of premise that peaks your interest for one episode – three, tops – before it fizzles and you’re back to scouring for something else to watch. Because you as a viewer know this story of TV life and death. A former SNL star, already a household name, creates, writes, and stars in his show that TV execs are excited to produce. It shows promise but soon it’s exposed as a surface-only pleasure without substantial layers underneath. The ratings dip, the show bounces around to different nights to adjust, creativity gets compromised by network interests, leading to an inevitable death by cancellation. If this was on Fox or NBC, bet money on that being the outcome.
But HBO’s Barry isn’t that show. It makes a quiet, yet profound, announcement in the first scene. You don’t see the main character kill his target: you see him carry out his empty, mundane routine in the moments that follow. You see his eyes and you’re not convinced there is any life behind them. Though primarily a comedy (co-created by Alec Berg of Silicon Valley, Seinfeld, and Curb Your Enthusiasm) it’s a deeper look into a how a person whose spirit is ravaged makes desperate attempts to rekindle it. Its surface shows the confident restraint of a show that knows it has legs to run if given the time, with plenty of unexpected layers underneath to peel away each week. Like the title character, Barry ignores what’s expected and becomes more interested in truth than going through the motions. Its just Barry’s journey to truth finds him killing for the Chechen mob and daydreaming about Jon Hamm asking if he could take a shit in his mansion. We all need to start somewhere.
Bill Hader, of SNL stardom, plays Barry Berkman, a former Marine working as a hitman out of a reliably depressing Cleveland for Fuches (played by HBO’s top utility player Stephen Root.) His newest assignment takes him to Los Angeles to kill a guy who turns out to be an aspiring actor. Only Barry finds his purpose. Barry tails him all the way to his acting class, taught by an absurdly realized acting teacher named Gene Cousineau (played by a never funnier Henry Winkler.) Barry wanders inside the class and sees Gene, likened to a drill instructor, cut through actress Sally’s (Sarah Goldberg) performance like a hot knife right to the center of her motivation: “What the fuck do you want?” A question, by the look of Barry’s inquisitive face, he’s never been asked. His profession allows him little-to-no room for existential thought. He is a left brain guy, never once considering the right brain had anything for him. Then he hears applause for Sally’s revamped performance after Gene’s prodding. Gene hugs Sally and reminds the class, “That’s what this class is about: life. I want you to create a life right here on stage.” Barry is transfixed by how supportive and driven they all seem to be – something he’s sorely missed since returning home from active duty. Barry finds himself frozen so long, he stays and his journey begins. He begins to create a life that’s separate from the bleak one he knows.
Like any first time actor, Barry keeps his day job, but looks for as quick of a transition as possible; but a snafu on a job gets Fuches kidnapped by the Chechen mob, leaving Barry to offer his services to keep Fuches alive. He now spends his time in Los Angeles juggling his newfound passion and his soul-sucking profession. Barry picks up Gene’s book on acting “Hit Your Mark and Say Your Lines” and begins applying it not only to his acting but to his life outside class, often to hilarious results. The episode titles are chapters from Gene’s book with writing advice: “Make Your Mark,” “Use It,” and “Make the Unsafe Choice.” It’s advice that a more open Barry is eager to take. In “Commit . . . to You!” Barry takes Gene’s advice to “fight” for what he desires when he tries to claim Sally as his girlfriend; she has none of it and quickly sours on Barry’s sudden forwardness. Poor application of acting advice.
The first few episodes show a conflict within Barry over who he should listen to: Fuches or Gene. Fuches is the sobering reminder of how limiting Barry’s grim reality is: “When you decided to do this for a living you closed the door on being able to do anything else.” And Gene, quick to never get anyone’s hopes up, advises Barry on what would be required of him as an actor: “What I want you to do is simply identify moment to moment what you’ve been doing subconsciously your whole life.” We see the hilarious clash between the two contrasting lifestyles. Gene and Sally encourage Barry to show more emotion on stage, but he’s spent his entire adult life stripping himself of emotion. He’s almost lifeless on stage – barely able to picture soup on the shelves of a grocery store. “Surrender to the soup, Barry,” Gene tells him.
The Chechen mobsters (Anthony Carrigan and Glenn Fleshler) he and Fuches fall in league with are sillier characters who lend themselves to the more obvious comedic aspects of the show. It’s difficult to connect with these two because we know wherever they are, Barry doesn’t want to be. He’s only there physically; mentally he’s working to implement Gene’s advice. The more serious clashes within Barry take center stage in the second half of the season, making the Chechen mobster seem a little out of place.
The show’s writers grow more confident in the later episodes in displaying the real-life consequences of Barry’s profession and how they inevitably spill into his now cherished personal life. Hader delivers solid dramatic chops in these episodes, showing Barry’s reluctant emotions, unearthed by acting, coming into play. It’s bold and refreshing to see the guy who is known for Stefon really explore the emotional complexities that no doubt rage inside Barry’s skull. We know Hader is good for comedic moments, but this new side to him adds weight to the character of Barry Berkman.
Why you should watch this show: Barry is an ambitious and unique take on a premise with which we are already familiar. The show’s creators and writers take it seriously, choosing not to cheapen Barry’s experience for easy laughs, so it’s not a stretch at all to suggest you could take it seriously as well. The drama does not come at the expense of the comedy and vice versa – a very natural and rare blend of the two. It has a beating, bleeding heart in Barry when he earnestly musters strength to say his lines in class; he’s trying like hell to improve. And since we all on some level seek similar improvement of our own sense of self, you root for him to find his . . . but know it will be costly.