SXSW 2018 Television Review: Bill Hader’s BARRY Isn’t About Acting (Or Killing People)

Though the first two episodes of the HBO series have lots of both mixed in.

HBO's new half-hour comedy Barry - created by star Bill Hader and Silicon Valley's Alec Berg - is about the titular hitman from the Midwest, who journeys out to LA to perform a job, only to get sidetracked by a low-rent acting class run by a huckster nobody named Cousineau (Henry Winkler, in full Zuckerkorn mode). Only, it's not really about any of those things. Sure, there's violence - as Barry proves himself to be quite the killer early on - and the comedic ensemble (which includes Stephen Root as Barry's familial handler, and Glenn Fleshler as a sweater-sporting Chechen mob don) bounce off each other with the ease you'd expect from this collection of pure professionals. Yet, at its heart, Barry starts out as a story about a guy discovering how to be human again, after it seems like he's gotten bored with his sociopathic vocation. 

During the first hour, we learn a few things about Hader's death dealer. One: he's a former soldier, who proved himself to be very proficient at killing in Afghanistan. Two: upon returning home from the war, he felt like he'd lost any sense of direction (as murder was the only thing he'd ever been good at). Three: along with his uncle, Fuches (Root) gifted the aloof army man a new "purpose", training Barry in the trade of being a mercenary, which made them all successful via a bizarre “family business”. Four: Barry is now bored with these flights to shithole American towns, where he stays an extra few days in their bland Holiday Inns (racking up expenses, much to Fuches' chagrin), a momentary respite from putting bullets through marks' eyes, stabbing them in their testicles (which he did once), or returning to the anonymous apartment he calls home. 

To try and snap Barry out of his funk, Fuches sends the killer to sunny LA, where's he's supposed to off a personal trainer who's begun banging the aforementioned kingpin’s wife. That's when things get complicated. While tailing his target, the assassin stumbles upon Sally (Sarah Goldberg), reciting her lines for the next scene she's supposed to perform in front of the class. Intrigued by this weird art they call "acting", Barry follows her into the spartan loft classroom and ends up on stage, performing a scene from True Romance with the guy he's supposed to whack. Of course, he's terrible, but Sally is just so damn cute. So, Barry ends up in a bar later that night with the rest of these aspiring performers, listening to them talk about "motivation" and booking gigs - all foreign concepts to this stranger in a strange land. 

Only, to call Barry a "stranger" feels like an understatement. Hader plays the hitman like he's a fucking alien, beamed down to Earth and observing this human form of expression as if it's the first time he's ever laid eyes on a stage or screen. It's through his interactions with the class that we get a sense of just how much of his soul he's lost to years of taking others' lives. In turn, the actors are all trying to break into the biz, willfully giving up pieces of their identity (such as adopting stage names or considering body-altering surgeries) just to achieve this odd dream. When Barry finally confesses to Winkler’s bullheaded guru in the parking lot - pouring his heart out about the trauma that's become his own existence - the doofus instructor thinks it's all an imrov'd monologue. Barry’s a new tin man in the Oz of lowest-level Hollywood, hoping to maybe find a heart, while these plastic people all think he's just another wannabe looking to make it big. 

Barry finds a pretty perfect balance between dark satire, quirky character comedy, and violent thriller, juggling the three tones with a surprising amount of ease. Making his directorial debut, Hader never really breaks from the standard "cinematic television" visual template that's become HBO's bread and butter, but when the violence pops off, he allows the assassin to transform into a lethal monster via rather excellently staged set pieces. There are shades of Jody Hill's proficient buffoons in the way Barry shifts from mugging lost boy to quick-gun merc at the drop of a dime – a potential back alley double-cross becoming the moment the audience realizes he’s truly not to be fucked with (think: Ronnie Barnhardt from Observe & Report). With the help of cinematographers Brandon Trost (Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping) and Paula Huidobro (Grown-ish), Hader’s vision of LA becomes a series of drab hotel rooms, neon-lit dive bars, late night diners, and manicured suburbs, all owning a unique texture. Those looking for more brightly lit pop comedy should turn elsewhere, as Barry is all about noir shadows and uncomfortable chuckles.

Though we've only seen the first two "Chapters", it's safe to say that Barry could be HBO's next addiction-worthy series, delivering a healthy dose of affecting pathos along with its belly laughs and brutal violence. While we're asked to tag along with a veritable Grim Reaper, he's a roving massacre artist who'd rather hang up his scythe for a chance at feeling alive once again, even if it's while pretending to be someone else. Hader's always been a terrific performer – a stand-out amongst a talented group at SNL who graduated to co-starring in Lonely Island classics, before fronting Judd Apatow studio pictures and indie dramedies alike. With Barry, he gets to play a new type of character: an empty vessel, looking to fill a void that's grown in his center with any sort of emotion he can find. In essence, he's a human looking for his new truth, which is really all acting is in the first place.