2018 saw a lot of impressive debuts on the small screen, including HBO’s black comedy Barry and several excellent horror offerings from Netflix. Several of my old faves, from cartoons to prestige dramas to zombie comedies, also returned with very strong seasons.
“Keep a lookout for a man with no discernible features – he killed your friend,” warns sleazy acting coach Gene in the fifth episode of HBO’s Barry.
That throwaway line pretty much sums up the show, which stars comedian Bill Hader as a depressed hitman who catches the acting bug.
A former Marine who stumbled into the contract killing business, Hader’s titular assassin is hardened but profoundly depressed. (It’s suggested that several of his hits have been delayed by his inability to get out of bed). Dispatched to kill an airheaded aspiring actor who’s run afoul of a gangster, Barry finds a new path when he inadvertently joins an L.A. acting class.
Executive produced by Hader (along with former Seinfeld writer Alec Berg), Barry feels like a spiritual sequel to the 1997 comedy Grosse Pointe Blank, sharing the film’s black humour, misfit characters, and coldblooded killings. There are some amusing side plots surrounding a group of harebrained but psychopathic gangsters, an un-supportive boss, and an ongoing murder investigation, but the show works best as a character sketch of Barry himself.
Hader, best known for playing a host of quirky characters on Saturday Night Live, brings an understated oddness to the character. Like John Cusack’s neurotic hitman in Grosse Point Blanke, Barry is a cold fish with a sketchy moral code. Perpetually insecure and on-edge, he compartmentalizes his crimes (“We kill bad guys,” he insists) and is thrown off-kilter when asked to do something that crosses one of his arbitrary lines. He’s generous and eager to make friends, but struggles with basic interactions. His motives are inscrutable; his actions, unpredictable.
Hader plays Barry as a professional on the verge of a breakdown. Neat, reserved, and deferential, he’s believable as a man who was once an incredibly disciplined killer, until something shook him. He comes off as someone who could snap at any moment, were it not for his newfound passion for acting.
The show’s stroke of brilliance is that Barry hasn’t discovered a hidden talent. Barry has no talent. He’s neither a good nor bad actor – he’s just blank. This is a man who’s made a career of deadening his emotions and focusing myopically on his immediate surroundings; he cannot mimic emotions he is not currently feeling, or imagine himself to be somewhere he’s not. (In one exercise, he’s tasked with visualizing his own bedroom and describing what he sees. He blurts out, “Toy chest”) Even in the simplest of scenes, he stands onstage like a deer in headlights and reads from his script with a sort of stilted, robotic panic. (His scene partners like him because he doesn’t steal the spotlight.)
It’s not even clear if Barry likes acting. “I just really wanna take this class,” is all he can muster when asked about his goals. For Barry, acting seems less like a calling and more like a last-ditch alternative to killing.
It doesn’t help that his acting teacher (played by sitcom veteran Henry Winkler) is a charlatan. In the first episode, Winkler’s Gene cuts off another student (Sally, Barry’s self-involved love interest) in the middle of an emotional scene and insults her to the point of tears. Just as she’s about to break down, he tells her to channel that pain into her performance; she finishes the scene to effusive praise, even though the quality of her acting has not noticeably changed.
“You know why I had to do that,” Gene says, as she nods gratefully.
Barry may be living a lie, but he’s not the biggest phony around (that award goes to his manipulative boss, played hilariously by Stephen Root). It seems like, in his search for a greater meaning, Barry’s traded one group of self-absorbed users for another. Time will tell if it’s possible to find something authentic in a land of pretenders.
If Barry were a feel-good story, the answer to that question would be clear. But this isn’t that kind of show – it’s the kind of show where a seasoned hitman shoots himself in despair while his intended target rambles about the American Dream.
At this point, it doesn’t even look like Barry will end up a passable actor. Then again, maybe it’s best if he doesn’t; like I said, this isn’t that kind of show, and Barry‘s at its best when it’s bucking cliches.
Executive Producers: Bill Hader, Alec Berg