A comedy about a hardened criminal immersing himself into the world of aspiring actors and acting classes? Honestly, sounds like an 80s Kindergarten Cop sort of scenario without nearly as much Schwarzenegger entertainment value. A drama about a hitman attempting to escape his dark life to the monotony of an honest, working-class life? Well, awards season is right around the corner, wouldn’t be anything too special. Both in one HBO show produced by Alec Berg, of Silicon Valley fame, and Bill Hader, SNL veteran actor?
Okay, I’m in.
HBO’s Barry walks a fine line between comedy and drama but never stumbles between the two. It’s an impressive show on all fronts. I thought I had signed up for a straightforward comedy but instead I had gotten a seamless dramedy. The comedy doesn’t undercut the drama and the drama doesn’t take away from the laughs. All of that is happening while moving the plot along and developing a fresh angle to the hitman genre.
Barry Berkman (Hader) is a former Marine and now hitman. His manager, Fuches (Stephen Root), sends him on a job in LA to kill an aspiring actor. To engage in some recon, Barry joins the acting class his target is in and ends up loving it. Now determined to escape his life of crime, he feigns for Sally Reed, a willful actress, while the Checins, led by mob boss Goran Pazar, try to kill him every step of the way.
Hader as Barry is great. When I think of Hader I remember funny voices and sketches on SNL, not a hardened and traumatized veteran. Yet, he shines in this performance, giving plenty of drama and emotion while using that comedic timing to great effect.
Which leads to my favorite part of the show: the performances. The characters in Barry should be familiar to anyone who knows mob movies or aspiring artist movies. There’s the ingenue actress waiting for her break, the fat mob boss trying to run his organization, and the brick wall of an artistic mentor. Along with these common archetypes are the stereotypical ways every actors play them.
This show aims to subvert many of those stereotypes: chief among them being Noho Hank, played brilliantly by Anthony Carrigan. Hank’s role is that of henchmen to Goran, but the polite and chippy attitude Carrigan animates is hilarious. It’s hard to describe specifically, but intense interrogation scenes become quaint and awkward with Hank there. Every time Hank left the story I couldn’t wait for him to pop back in.
Henry Winkler also stars as the acting teacher Gene Cousineau, an actor with a façade of success and arrogance but a harsh reality of mediocrity. Winkler gives it enough charm to make him likable but leaves plenty of smirks and sneers to show Gene’s true colors. Root as Fuches is the same way, switching between ally and antagonist on a dime and Sarah Goldberg as Sally Reed goes full diva actress and gives an interesting view into Barry’s need for approval. They all provide important story arcs for Barry, thanks to the wonderful writing, but they wouldn’t be half as funny without the effective comedic performances.
The direction on the show is also worth note. Creators Hader and Berg direct their fair share of episodes, together making up the most number of episodes directed, but Maggie Carey, Minkie Spiro, and Hiro Murai also join as directors. With Barry being equally dramatic and comedic, how other people approach the show is fascinating to watch. Murai has directed a number of episodes on Donald Glover’s Atlanta, a show with similar sensibilities of comedy and drama. His episodes can be easily compared to his work on Atlanta, which isn’t a bad thing. All of his work tells the story and uses some interesting shots to do such. Although he takes the second place on number of episodes, Carey and Spiro have two of the better episodes in the season. All around the direction is cohesive yet creative with each episode’s needs.
Barry is some must-see television. Come for the mocking of acting culture in LA and stay for the spiraling pit of crime Barry finds himself in. Don’t worry though, that pit still contains laughs. Lots of crime and drama but definitely some moments that will have you rolling on the floor. In the Golden Age of Television, try to find a place high up on your list to put Barry.