barry review

On Saturday Night Live, Bill Hader made his name as a ham. And a good one. As the show’s resident master of impressions (maybe the best the long-running series has ever seen), he was a key supporting player, the goofball who could conjure up an iconic figure with seemingly little effort, the wacky spice injected into any ordinary situation to get you giggling. Hader was always at his best when he was being silly.

So perhaps the most surprising thing about Hader’s new HBO series, Barry, is that he’s not silly at all. In fact, he’s downright withdrawn, playing a character so internalized, anxious and downbeat that the mere act of interacting with other human beings looks like a trial. The second most surprising thing about the show is that Hader’s Barry is an icy killer, a hitman who is ruthless and efficient and damn good at his job.

But what’s least surprising about all of of this is that Hader is terrific. He always is. We all knew he could be funny. What we didn’t know is that he could play the stone-faced straight man to a wacky universe of characters. It’s a thrilling, generous performance, one that lets the supporting cast shine at every opportunity.

Hader (who also directed the first two episodes) and co-creator Alec Berg (of Silicon Valley fame) ground the high concept premise of the show in grimly relatable subtext. At it’s core, Barry is the story of a downbeat Midwestern schlub making a living at a job he hates, albeit one that he’s very good at. However, a work trip to Los Angeles finds him bitten by the acting bug. Is he talented? Not really. But is he going to follow his dreams anyway? You bet your ass he will.

Of course, Barry is a professional hitman. So things get weird fast. And yeah, Barry’s baby steps into Hollywood, via an acting class filled with lovable and sometimes dim dreamers, come with a body count. Breaking into the industry is hard for ordinary folks, so that goes double for skilled killers who work in the shadows and have accidentally pissed off the local criminal underworld.

This set-up allows Barry to be lovable and even relatable, all while he’s shooting people in the face. You know this guy. Maybe you are this guy. He hates his job and wants more out of life. Fuches, his father figure and partner-in-crime (played by the always indispensable Stephen Root), loves him, but doesn’t believe he has a chance at this acting thing. He has a crush on a fellow acting student, Sally (an adorable and sweet Sarah Goldberg), but he’s not good at dancing, drinking, flirting, and closing the deal when he finds himself outside her apartment door. Barry is a war veteran, a damaged man who learned overseas that he was good at killing and brought his one true skill back home…but the emotions that circle that dark core make him human. There’s no snark to Barry. No smugness. When he kills, it’s never cool. We can sense and appreciate his desire for escape.

Barry Trailer - Bill Hader

Hader and Berg wisely choose to never glamorize Barry’s work. Violence is fast and chaotic, reflecting Barry’s skills and the suddenness that accompanies a real gun battle. Hader is chilling with a weapon in his hand, a constant reminder that this is ugly work. Even when Barry gets silly, this dark underbelly gives it bite. Some of the comedic rhythms will remind you of Silicon Valley (Berg’s fingerprints are as present as Hader’s), but this is pitch black stuff. Comedy at its bleakest.

And that makes the show’s cheerful side all the more disarming and charming. When Barry isn’t murdering people, he’s learning how to act under Cousineau, a demanding acting coach whose students seemingly don’t realize that he’s a total crook. Henry Winkler is pitch-perfect casting – charismatic enough to sell us on his vision of show business, weathered enough to realize that he’s as desperate and pathetic as his hopeless charges. It’s a silly performance by an actor skilled at making the outrageous feel natural and his interactions with Hader are among the highlights of the first two episodes.

Just as effective are Glenn Fleshler and Anthony Carrigan as two eastern European criminals whose attempts to live ordinary domestic lives often clash with the fact that they torture people in their garages and hire marksmen to shoot innocent people in the head. Hader may play the title character, but he’s the straight face to all of this lunacy – watching these buffoons bounce off him is a joy.

There is a clear and obvious evolution across the two episodes of Barry that premiered at SXSW. The pilot is a solid half hour with a lot of heavy lifting – it gets the many high concept gears turning by the time the credits roll. Episode two sees the show finding its groove, transforming into something you can imagine watching every week instead of just a strong pitch. Episode 2 is funnier, darker, and wilder, doubling down on the pilot’s biting black comedy and unexpected sweetness while pushing the plot forward at a speed that reminds you just how slow too many shows move these days.

Barry is off to a strong start and if it maintains its momentum, HBO could have the next Veep or Silicon Valley on its hands. It’s fresh. It’s fun. It’s decisively R-rated and bleak in that trademark HBO house style. And Hader, a brilliant supporting player, steps into the center and proves that he’s the star we’ve always known him to be.

Barry premieres on HBO on March 25, 2018.

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About the Author

Jacob Hall is the managing editor of /Film, with previous bylines all over the Internet. He lives in Austin, Texas with his wife, his pets, and his board game collection.