“Hitman discovers his passion for acting” is not exactly a compelling story premise. It sounds like fertile ground for broad, uninteresting comedy with unrealistic scenarios and characters who are hard to believe in. And yet, show creators Bill Hader and Alec Berg took that premise and turned it into a remarkable show. “Barry” is part dark comedy, part-tragicomedy, and altogether brilliant.
The show follows the titular Barry Berkman, a former marine and Midwestern hitman. After being offered a job by his boss and father figure, Fuches (Steven Root), Barry infiltrates an acting class to follow his new target. It’s there that he finds a sense of “purpose” in his otherwise meaningless, meandering life. Naturally, this being a comedy, Barry is a terrible actor, in need of the guidance of a teacher. He’s taken under the wing of Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler), an emotionally abusive but talented acting coach. He also develops a romantic attraction to one of the other actors in the class, Sally Reed (Sarah Goldberg), a struggling actress with dreams of fame and success.
Of course, things don’t go according to plan, and Barry finds himself tangled up in a group of Chechen gangsters who prevent him from leaving his life as a hitman behind. By the end of the first episode, Barry has killed several of the mobsters, who leave behind potential evidence of his murder. The attack prompts Detective Janice Moss to step in and hunt down whoever killed the gangster, putting Barry’s life in a state of perpetual jeopardy.
As the titular character, Hader delivers a shockingly fantastic performance. I don’t mean “shockingly” as an insult; as a comedian, he was one of Saturday Night Live’s best performers ever. Stefan is still an utterly hilarious character. But he was never known as a dramatic actor. But in “Barry,” the comedian proves to be a dramatic tour de force. Barry is a man who’s incredibly distanced from his own emotions. Hader often portrays him with glazed over eyes, which light up when he’s acting or in the presence of Sally, his crush. It helps make Barry an incredibly complicated character, a man who’s so traumatized he’s become oblivious to his own emotions.
The rest of the cast, too, is fantastic. Unlike many other, less compelling shows, “Barry” consistently gives its supporting cast interesting storylines, which, in turn, gives each cast member a chance to shine. Goldberg is wonderful as Sally, showcasing her intense fears and anxieties as well as her own talents. Winkler is stellar, portraying Gene as both an egomaniac and desperate fool. As Chechen gangsters, Glenn Fleshler and Anthony Carrigan are both intimidating and utterly hilarious.
At its core, “Barry” is a show about people struggling to escape their current personal hells, never successfully. Barry wants to escape his violent and increasingly traumatic lifestyle and follow his true passion. Sally wants to escape the constant struggles of being talented but unrecognized. Detective Moss wants to catch the killer, whom she (correctly, despite what everyone else tells her) suspects is connected to Gene’s acting class.
The show is able to wring out both pathos and humor from the plights of its characters. Barry’s desperate attempts to act are both funny and sad. He’s found a purpose in life, but he’s incapable of doing it well. The desperation of the other actors in his class are similarly funny and tragic. In one scene, an actress tries to seduce the actor who played Pinocchio in an upcoming movie, but it’s quickly made clear that he didn’t portray the character but was a stand-in who will be unrecognizable under CGI.
As such, “Barry” is perhaps best described as a tragicomedy. It’s both hilarious and endearing but difficult to watch. Its characters are each trapped in their own existential hell, battling and failing to escape it. While its tone may sometimes vary too much for its own good, “Barry” is still an outstanding show, one of the funniest, and bleakest, currently on television.
Henry Spiro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @judgeymcjudge1.