On the face of it, there’s no reason Barry, which premiered Sunday night on HBO, should work. Bill Hader plays the eponymous Barry, an ex-Marine-turned-hitman who, while working a job, stumbles into an L.A. acting class, and finds solace in his peers’ unquestioning acceptance of him. Over the course of eight episodes, the show evenly splits time between the inner-workings of the Chechen mob, with whom Barry becomes entangled, and the cesspool of insecurity and casual solipsism typical of aspiring stars. As Hader himself admits in a recent podcast, the show is a tonal high-wire act, careening between bursts of brutal violence and hilarity, implacable coldness and genuine tenderness. And yet it’s one, by dint of Hader’s sensitivity as a performer, he and co-creator Alec Berg manage to pull off. It’s not a great show—yet. But it’s a very good one, and not for the reasons you may think.
It may frustrate fans of Hader that his mien, at least early on, is one of stoic inscrutability. The expressive features the actor used to such comedic effect on SNL and scene-stealing film roles—those bulging eyes and protean vocal intonations—are narcotized here, replaced instead with a tragic muteness. Barry, following a stint in Afghanistan, is depressed, directionless, lonely, hating who he’s become but unsure of what else there is he could do; that we know Hader to capable of such big emotions only serves to underscore his condition. Part of the show’s suspense comes from knowing it’s only a matter of time before Barry’s chokehold on his feelings relents and permits Hader’s innate vivacity to shine through.
Until then, though, Barry primarily relies on the feelings of Sally (the will-soon-be-in-everything Sarah Goldberg), a pert and talented actress in Barry’s class, whose turbulent mood swings—mostly, regarding her career, or lack thereof—serve as a kind of emotive cipher for the things he won’t allow himself to feel. Like Barry, Sarah’s talent (for acting, not killing) routinely bumps against a more dissatisfying reality: that she hasn’t succeeded at acting. (“I get to this point with a lot of my prospective clients, where I have a decision to make,” Sally’s would-be agent tells her, in episode four. “‘Do I want to sign them or do I want to fuck them?’” A deliciously long pause follows, before the agent tells her that he was of course joking; soon after, she learns he no longer wants to represent her.)
Sally, of course, is drawn to Barry, and Barry, Sally. But as Barry becomes more embroiled in the Chechen mob, out of a sense of loyalty to his boss Fuches (Stephen Root), it becomes more difficult for him to straddle both worlds—to reconcile the person he was with the person he hopes to be, as intimated through a series of brisk dream sequences (one of which features a great celebrity cameo). Things really start going off the rails when Barry reconnects with a friend from the Marines, and one of his friends (also a vet) worms his way into a small-scale Chechen-Bolivian gang war, inexplicably taking place in and around Los Angeles. The police, headed up by the determined, yet fallible Detective Moss (Paula Newsome), are also breathing down his neck. The past, it seems, is not willing to let Barry enjoy his happily ever after so easily.
I half-expected Hader and Berg, whose precise plotting here is reminiscent of his work on Silicon Valley, to suggest that Barry, like many veterans haunted by their service, are “acting” to a certain degree—pretending to be normal people amidst a world of pain. But the show is, thankfully, never really about acting, which is one of those thematic devices applicable to anyone and everything, and therefore nothing (we’re all acting, all the time, man). Barry himself is an awful actor. His only good scenes transpire when his teacher (played by the great Henry Winkler) or one of his classmates misreads his real sentiments as deliberate theatrical choices; these moments have the blueprint of comedy but come off just as tragic. For Barry, the acting class provides a nice cover, a safe place in which to share his real feelings. He loves it because he gets to be someone else—on stage, certainly, but mostly with his new community of peers.
There have been comedies centered on assassins before, like The Matador, Mr. and Mrs. Smith and, perhaps the strangest of the bunch, Mr. Right, starring an unhinged Sam Rockwell and a downright loopy Anna Kendrick. But whereas those films drew comedic tension from the fact their protagonists are resolutely hitmen, Barry wrenches serious drama from the fact that its protagonist no longer wants to be one. Nowhere in this show are the flashy action sequences that may otherwise glaze over messy issues of human morality; its violence is as brief as it is brutal. And rather than elide the moments that test Barry’s increasingly flawed moral code, Hader leans into them, with the sort of subtlety and truth missing from his last dramatic role, in the overwrought indie, The Skeleton Twins.
As much as HBO is marketing Barry as a dark comedy, it’s probably more accurate to say it’s a psychological character drama with moments of humor. Tonally, the show pulls it off, because its structure is so grounded in the conflict of its protagonist: like Barry himself, Barry is one foot into contract killing and the other out the door, to a room full of amateur Shakespeare and celebratory Red Stripes. He may do bad things, but we empathize with him because he is ultimately striving to be good.
The series is far from perfect. Although Anthony Carrigan, playing a Chechen henchman named Noho Hank, does his best to infuse the mob plotline with warmth and humor, that world, in general, feels somewhat uninspired (a tough guy who’s also sensitive? You don’t say!). But the show is smart about what it chooses to focus on: a certain inertness we’ve all experienced—in a job or relationship—and the lengths we’ll go to in order to break free, move on and start again.