HBO’s new show is an incredibly exciting one. There, I said it. Alec Berg (Silicon Valley) and Bill Hader have teamed up to write and direct a refreshing, 30 minute television show that simultaneously baffles and confuses you, and yet excites you, leaving you desperately needing more. “Barry” is a dark comedy filled with splashes of drama. And it is, for sure, the show you have to tune into this spring.
The pilot is, without exaggerating, incredible. “Chapter One: Make Your Mark” throws us into the story of Barry Berkman, an ex-marine turned terrific hitman from Cleveland who, upon carrying out an assignment in Los Angeles, stumbles upon an acting class. Finding it interesting, and suddenly overcome by the freeing feeling of being on stage and somehow letting go of all of his bottled-up emotions, he decides to give up on the assignment and join the class. And that’s how Barry becomes simultaneously a terrifyingly good hitman and a terrible actor.
“I’M NOT SURE I’D DO COMMERCIALS”
You probably know Bill Hader as Amy Schumer’s love interest in Trainwreck, or even as the voice of Fear in Inside Out and Flint Lockwood in Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs. If you’re into indie films, you might know him for playing suicidal failed actor Milo opposite Kristen Wiig in The Skeleton Twins. But the truth is if you know Bill Hader it’s probably because you saw him recommending terrible clubs dressed in a curious shirt, hitting people with a microphone, or interviewing famous actors with a funny accent week after week on Saturday Night Live.
But if you were expecting to see one of Hader’s classic SNL characters, there’s none of that on this show. Barry Berkman is miles away from anything Hader has accustomed us to after his eight years as a regular on Saturday Night Live. There is no trace of Stefon or Vinny Vedecci or Herb Welch. There are no exaggerated accents or wildly quirky facial expressions. In fact, it’s quite the radical opposite. Barry is depressed, conflicted, uncomfortable with a job he does out of necessity more than actual joy. His facial expressions are still the essence of the character —such an intricate part of Hader’s acting, always— but he follows one very simple, very effective rule: less is more.
Barry barely talks throughout the episode, and yet we immediately understand who this character is. He wears a t-shirt with cartoon characters to sleep, throws his mail on his half-made bed, is utterly unfazed when he pulls the trigger. He is, by every definition of the word, kind of a loser who just so happens to be a terrifyingly good killer. And despite being a rather quiet guy whose sentences are usually in the negative —I’m not this, I don’t think I can be that—, his expressions tell us exactly who he is: a guy out of place. He looks perpetually uncomfortable no matter where he is, even when he’s doing his job. Sometimes, he doesn’t even react to what’s happening in front of him. He exists without knowing where he exists. There’s no badass music to accompany his kills, he doesn’t walk away cooly from an explosion. He’s just a guy with a job. And that job happens to be murder.
Barry does the job well. Hader does the job even better. He’s proven capable of transmitting real pain and torment before, but he does so outstandingly here. The scene he shares near the end with his drama-teacher-to-be is the perfect example. There is so much conflict, so much torment inside of him rising to the outside maybe for the first time ever, that despite the terrible things you’ve seen him do you feel for him.
He’s just a guy. With a normal, average name. With a job. That happens to be murder.
And he doesn’t really like it.
“THESE GUYS ARE THE REAL DEAL”
But for Barry to work as a character, for him to have a promised progression throughout the show, he needs other characters to build him up, to quite literally react to him, to remark exactly how out of place he always seems to be. Fuches, his “almost uncle” seems to be the only figure Barry can rely on and trust in, the only person that he actually confides in. Fuches tells him he has to find a purpose, and that’s exactly what’s going to drive Barry. But, at the same time, Fuches —played brilliantly by Stephen Root— doesn’t really believe in him and in his capabilities. That’s what Barry’s acting class friends are for. Here’s the trick about “Barry”: the eponymous main character isn’t the source of the comedy —his co-stars carry most of that weight.
Henry Winkler’s character Gene Cousineau is, without a doubt, the show’s second pillar next to Hader. His “no-bullshit” explicit attitude is unbelievably funny despite the seriousness it carries, and his angry outbursts play incredibly well in contrast to Barry’s rigidness. The same goes for Sally, Sarah Goldberg’s character, with whom you fall in love with in a matter of minutes —much like Barry does, if that bar scene is anything to judge by. All of the characters are flawed and contradictory; they swing from one mood to the next with hilarious ease. But that’s exactly what Barry needs. Actual emotional action that pulls out the depression from him.
And just like that, you are more invested in how this dynamic is going to work than in anything else. Barry’s job is still an important factor, and how he’s going to combine such different worlds is a question they will undoubtedly answer throughout the episodes. But the audience is ultimately more interested in how these classmates are going to change Barry and how they will react if/when they ever find out the truth.
“IT’S MURDER. MURDER ISN’T FUNNY”
No, it isn’t. That was something both Berg and Hader knew very clearly when they pitched the idea to HBO —famously into real, brutal violence. They set out to prove murder isn’t a joke, it’s gruesome and terrible, even when it’s on TV. And they accomplished it. There’s nothing even remotely hilarious about Barry’s jobs, about the way he kills or who he kills. The deaths promise to be brutally nearly traumatizing, so real and specific that they’re disturbing at best. The camera never shies away from a murder, forcing the audience to watch, to learn and understand that Barry is not a good guy, despite not necessarily being a villain.
In fact, that’s why the writers save him from having to pull the trigger on his mark-turned-friend. Because, were we to see Barry carry out the job despite acknowledging that the person he was ordered to kill was “a good guy” that was determined to help him with his audition, we would’ve never have forgiven him. Because, do we really believe Barry would ultimately be capable of that? Maybe he is. Maybe we just don’t know him enough.
It’s all a part of what makes the show so interesting. Because perhaps the most disturbing thing of all is how unaffected Barry is by all of this. Towards the episode’s end, Barry murders three men with frighteningly good aim, and although we do see him curse in frustration, the final scene sees him sitting comfortably in a diner, ordering herbal tea as police cars race to the crime scene. And then he declares he’s an actor, and almost for the first time in the entire episode, smiles.
Seriously, Bill Hader in this. Incredible.
MAKE YOUR MARK
So here’s the fascinating thing the show promises: to guide an apparent loser towards what he actually wants to do. The charm lies in the contradiction that the show insists upon. Barry is terrible at what he wants to do, and yet great at what he doesn’t want to do.
At the end of the day, though, Barry’s goal, though he may not know it yet, might not be to become an amazing actor. It might be learning how to deal with trauma, with guilt, with being hurt. It might be learning to show that smile more than he does now.
Regardless, we’re going to be seeing Barry learn. He’s going to learn to act, learn to deal with people who he isn’t going to kill, learn what he really needs. Learn to make his mark.
And, in all honesty, we barely know the guy, but I really doubt his mark is an objective he’s supposed to kill.