Though he returned last week to host, there were plenty of questions about what Bill Hader’s post-Saturday Night Live career would look like. It’s safe to say that playing a down-and-out Midwestern hitman who discovers a hidden passion for acting, while trying to kill someone in Los Angeles, probably wasn’t high on most people’s lists. That being said, seeing Hader in Barry, as a professional killer who stumbles into his calling — or at least he thinks he does — is the sort of welcome next step for a performer as talented as he is that doesn’t come around too often.
Hader was one of the most versatile performers during his tenure on SNL, and the range he displayed alongside Fred Armisen on IFC’s Documentary Now! was certainly indicative of the sort of future that lay ahead of him. Nevertheless, the choice to star in, write, and direct several episodes of this new series (which was co-created by Silicon Valley’s Alec Berg) is perhaps a sign of certain artistic aspirations, all of which help turn Barry into something that feels tremendously personal. It certainly makes the series more fascinating than your average tale of a professional killer looking for a way out of the moral abyss that is his day job, but it also enhances the comedy’s already dark edges, underlining character’s sense of dissatisfaction without making the series too caustic or despairing.
Barry’s backstory is simple but appropriately shadowy. That’s not to say Barry is hiding some big reveal; it’s that the series premiere doesn’t spend a lot of time discussing how Barry came to kill people for money. His time in the military is touched on briefly, as is his personal and professional connection to his handler, Fuches (Stephen Root). Not quite a mentor and not quite a friend, Fuches is only interested in using Barry’s talents to further his own ends, which mostly has to do with a suitcase full of money and an indeterminate point in future where they’ll have done enough to justify stopping. It doesn’t take much to arrive at the conclusion that Barry is Fuches’ only client, who needs the increasingly reluctant killer more than Barry needs him or his representation.
So, when Fuches sends Barry to Los Angeles, on a job for some Chechen gangsters — played with fun intensity by Billions’ Glenn Fleshler and Gotham’s Anthony Carrigan — he’s unwittingly putting himself out of business, as his number one client suddenly discovers he wants more from life than his current occupation can offer. The transition to Hollywood opens up a whole host of possibilities and also introduces the show's supporting players, like Henry Winkler’s failed actor turned teacher Gene Cosineau, and Sarah Goldberg as Sally Reed, a struggling actor on the precipice of figuring out it’s probably never going to happen.
The convergence of the two storylines sends Barry down an entertaining path, one that sees him tasked with killing a rival gangster for the Chechens while balancing his commitments to Cosineau’s class and his fellow actors. The push-pull of Barry’s occupation with his dreams of becoming an actor produces a surprising amount of tension that's aided by Hader’s inherent likability, which helps generate empathy for a character who is also a cold-blooded killer. That’s no easy task, Grosse Point Blank had a similar premise and failed to turn John Cusack’s character into someone you wanted to root for. What's more, the show is intent on purposely complicating matters by continuing to find reasons for Barry to keep killing people.
It all threatens to get a little claustrophobic, but Barry opens things up by occasionally shifting its focus away from Barry and onto the supporting cast. Cosineau and Sally aren’t just punchlines with personalities or human props for the show’s central conceit; they’re on their way to becoming fully realized characters that make the most of their scenes and storylines with and away from Barry. And the more the series progresses, the more that distance begins to really matter; it’s what allows Barry to be violent and unpleasant at times, but also strangely intimate at others. That contradiction runs through many of the characters as well, leading to some inspired exchanges with the Chechen gangsters in later episodes.
Barry balances the darkness of the premise and so much of its comedy with some human moments that show just how vulnerable not only Barry, but also Sarah and Cosineau can be. The series has its fair share of laughs at the entertainment industry the pretentiousness of would-be actors, but it steers clear of turning the struggles of actors and the pain of rejection into the butt of its jokes.
Ultimately, Barry turns out to be a whip-smart dark comedy that has much more up its sleeve. Leave it to Hader to craft a part that not only shows a different side of him, but really takes full advantage of his range as an actor. The series still puts his comedic talents to use, but it also aims to prove he's capable of so much more. In the end, Barry turns out to be one of the best new comedies to hit HBO since Silicon Valley.
Barry continues next Sunday with 'Chapter Two: Use It' @10:30pm on HBO.