Barry Season 1
Directors: Bill Hader, Alec Berg, Maggie Carey, Hiro Murai
Starring: Bill Hader, Stephen Root, Henry Winkler, Sarah Goldberg
Writers: Bill Hader & Alec Berg, et al.
Review by Michael Walls-Kelly
I’ve always been a casual Saturday Night Live watcher. I tune in enough to know the different eras. I grew up watching reruns of the original cast, the doomed ‘80s casts, and the ‘90s resurgence. There have been a lot of breakout stars that have seemed super obvious, like Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell, and Kate McKinnon. There’s absolutely no surprise when they and a handful of others end up headlining films or countless sitcoms. What’s really special is when an underrated utility player starts to get the respect they deserve.
I clocked Bill Hader as one to watch after his second or third SNL episode — which, I know, makes me sound like some Robert Evans asshole — and he’s never disappointed me. He’s had hilarious supporting roles in films like Superbad, Hot Rod, and Popstar and he’s shown he has dramatic chops in The Skeleton Twins and Trainwreck.
Barry allows Hader to meld a lot of the aspects of his personality into a near-perfect vehicle for his talents. Hader is the titular Barry, a former marine, and current disaffected hitman. When he’s sent by his handler, Fuches (Stephen Root) to California to do a hit he ends up accidentally participating in an acting class. After playing the straight-man in what is certainly the second best and arguably funniest version of the Drexl Spivey scene in True Romance he catches the acting bug.
The crux of the series revolves around three points. There’s the tension of Barry trying to fit into his acting class, the tension with Fuches and his unfinished business as a hitman, and the internal tension of what Barry actually wants.
We’re given a rough sketch of Barry as a person which is only slightly shaded in by the end of the eight-episode first season. He has sheets on his bed that a child would buy. He’s quietly awkward and polite in normal situations. We eventually find out he is a former marine and even get to know an old war buddy of his, but we never get a biographical truth from the character.
Which doesn’t matter. The truths we do get are all on the stage, even if accidentally. The liveliest parts of the series are the acting class he joins. Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler) teaches the class. He’s very supportive, very demanding and not at all afraid to yank a great moment out of his students at all cost. The class is loaded with other side characters. The most important of which is probably Sally (Sarah Goldberg), a friend turned one-night-stand.
A bunch of the people in the acting class are doing it for fun or self-fulfillment, but Sally is used to take a look at the ridiculous nature of trying to make it in LA. Barry basically fell ass-backward into some affecting performances, but Sally is eternally struggling. Goldberg has great energy, channeling a Naomi Watts-meets-Patricia Arquette vibe that works well against Hader’s general stillness. I feel like she’s misused in some of the middle entries. The acting storylines take a bit of a backseat to the hitman storylines. However, she comes into focus again by the end.
Really, that’s more of an issue with the balance of the series. When the focus is too heavy on the hitman aspect, I end up wanting more of the acting class. Don’t get me wrong. The hitman stuff is fun. Hader is oddly believable when he uses a gun, and he bounces off of Stephen Root well. Glenn Fleshler and Anthony Carrigan are really funny as the leader of the Chechen gang and his amiable henchman, respectively. There are assassinations and hits and twists in that storyline that remind me of the Coen Brothers. I usually found myself longing for the mundanity of the acting class storylines.
Oddly, a crappy-looking Shakespeare showcase was more intriguing to me than a safehouse raid. That being said, those parts absolutely held my interest, and I think Barry does a better job than a lot of shows of actually balancing its tones. It isn’t afraid to fully embrace whichever tone it’s going for, and then drop it as soon as it needs to make a joke or shoot someone in the head instead.
The general wisdom is to write what you know. I have no idea if Bill Hader and co-creator Alec Berg (Seinfeld, Silicon Valley) took acting classes, but they seemed to nail it. I’m even less certain that they’ve ever killed someone for money. They did a damn good job of bringing that to screen too.
Verdict: Watch this show. It’s a nice, clever use of Bill Hader’s many talents. He plays a blank slate for the most part, but his bursts of personality — whether it’s killing a carload of Chechen assassins or delivering a single line from MacBeth — prove his versatility. Barry is a fun show that isn’t afraid to get intense and actually emotional. I absolutely recommend checking it out.