This Barry review contains spoilers.
Barry Episode 1
A well-worn but tested and true observation among comedy obsessives is that a person’s favorite Saturday Night Live cast directly coincides with the years that they attended high school. It’s a perfect storm of circumstances that cements this belief: you’re up late on the weekends but not out at bars and rarely parties, you’re still juvenile enough to appreciate the simpler material, and you’re still hip enough to get all of the references. In reality, the people on the show probably have very little to do with crystalizing this favoritism, but the Class of ’83 pledges allegiance to Murphy, the Class of ’93 worships Farley and his disciples, and I’m certain you could find at least one brave soul that swears by today’s current McKinnon-led cast of cohorts.
Though old heads will cry sacrilege, I think today’s current TV comedy landscape, dominated by Andy Samberg, Amy Poehler, Seth Meyers, Kristen Wiig, Fred Armisen, Will Forte – I could keep listing but I think I’ve proved my point – at least lends credence to the claim that my teenage years had the deepest SNL benches. Among all of the talented would-be TV/movie stars and production powerhouses, Bill Hader perhaps shined the brightest on the platform. Not since Phil Hartman had SNL had such a versatile, understated tactician of a performer, able to disappear into parts and impressions and make everyone around him better.
Sadly, as incredible as his time on SNL was to the rest of us, the job was mostly excruciating for Hader. For eight seasons, Hader was plagued by nerves and consumed by the anxiety and unrelenting schedule that comes with the workplace. Freed from the NBC institution, Hader teamed with Silicon Valley executive producer Alec Berg to channel his experience on the show into an HBO series, a starring-vehicle for Hader that would feature a man stuck in a stressful occupation that he excels at with virtuosity but derives no pleasure from.
Meet Barry, a hitman and former Marine that served in Afghanistan. He’s great at killing, but it’s wearing him down and he’d really like to do something else. Depressed and living in Cleveland (as a Clevelander myself, I need to applaud the choice of Barry wearing a classic WMMS Buzzard t-shirt – every Clevelander Barry’s age has a similar shirt in the back of their closet), Barry has fallen into contract killing with the help of his Dad’s friend Fuches (Stephen Root). When Fuches tries to get Barry out of his rut with a job in sunny L.A., Barry follows his mark into an acting class and catches the acting bug.
When I initially heard the concept, I envisioned Hader as an outsized character, done up Guido-style like his “Gay Couple from Jersey” Weekend Update character, doing a broad fish-out-of-water comedy. I’m pleased to report that Barry is not that show. Thankfully, Barry is a pitch-black dramedy just as interested in the drama of Barry’s lifestyle, his mental and spiritual fatigue, as it is in lampooning L.A.’s struggling actor scene. Hader delivers a monologue in the third act of “Chapter One: Make Your Mark” that should convince anyone that, even if Barry isn’t a serious actor, Bill certainly is. Root, the consummate character actor, is in menacing mode here. Though Fuches is friendly enough with Barry, gently prodding, his sudden appearances and “stay in your lane” pseudo-pep talks hint at a potential heel turn in the future.
Barry’s L.A. mark is Ryan Madison, an empty-headed aspiring actor who sleeps with the wrong Chechen crime boss’ wife. While tailing Ryan, Barry grows tired waiting for him to return from a non-descript building in Studio City and follows in after him, stumbling upon an acting class taught by Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler). Barry inadvertently ends up performing a scene with Ryan, and the reaction from an attentive audience appears to awaken Barry from his depressed malaise. As a former theater enthusiast, I can attest to the draw; even if the work is middling at best, the creative atmosphere and close-knit bonds can be infectious.
The acting class scores most of Barry’s laughs. Though the students are ostensibly there for the love of the “theater,” they all perform scenes from movies like Magnolia and True Romance, not even trying to mask their movie star aspirations. Gene is a performative ham and bully of a teacher, inappropriately laying into and embarrassing his students in the guise of getting “truth,” but really in an effort to fuel his own ego and foster dependency. Maybe it’s because I just got finished watching Netflix’s Wild Wild Country, but Barry treats it’s aspiring actors like wide-eyed cultists; listen to a former male cult member explain their indoctrination and they’ll sound and look just like Barry, talking about finding their meaning and community and infatuated with all of the beautiful true believers (Sarah Goldberg’s hopeful and determined Sally).
When Barry gets too close to his mark and initially fails to take him out, Goran’s guys notice. When Barry finally musters the nerve to fulfil his contract, the goons have beat him to the punch and intend on offing Barry as well. It’s here we get to see Barry exercise his skill, and he dispatches Goran’s men with frightening ease. Unfortunately, Noho (Gotham’s Anthony Carrigan) had his camera recording and it appears to catch the whole display on tape. Surely Goran’s or the police’s retaliation will supply the conflict for the rest of the season.
With sharp writing, instantly compelling characters, and fascinating shifts in tone, Barry’s pilot kills. Hader directed this first installment, and his close-up work and the framing of the episode’s final scene show he’s as adept behind the camera as in front. Also, points to the score, which mixes classic synth-driven music typical of an L.A. thriller with an accordion harmony ripped from a comedy soundtrack. Just like Barry, the combination of dark and light sounds like it could be messy on paper, but more than hits the mark.