A hitman walks into an acting class and changes his life.
The basic premise sounds naive, but the darker consequences make this comedy from Bill Hader and Alec Berg worth the watch. Hader secured his spot in my list of favorite actors with his performance in an otherwise underwhelming movie, Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck in 2014. The goofy guy I’d seen on SNL and in his stint in Hot Rod (yes guys, he was in that movie and we still love him), transformed into a leading man for me in his heartwarming portrayal as Schumer’s love interest.
Berg is prolific in the world of comedy with writing and producing credits on a few little shows you may know including Seinfeld, Silicon Valley, and Conan O’Brien. The premise and the creators should have been enough to get me to purchase HBO and watch – but I was a late bloomer to the Barry parade. In fact, I only watched because I knew season two would be dropping this past weekend and wanted to catch up… Fourish hours later I had ingested the entire first season because the hype for this dramedy was well earned. After watching the season two premiere, I am no less impressed with the continued quality.
The smart jokes in the show are masterfully crafted with the junction of struggling Hollywood actors and seedy LA mafia activity as the main character’s unlikely background. The actors are portrayed as self-absorbed, ambitious and loyal only on the surface to their motley crew of students in the aforementioned acting class. Sally, Hader’s love interest in the show (Sarah Goldberg), is simultaneously starry eyed and cripplingly self-conscious in her pursuit of her career. She befriends Barry only to cast him aside at the slightest wiff of a better opportunity. His pursuit of the struggling artist and Sally’s mood swings often direct Barry along his wonky path of learning how to be a civilian again.
There is infighting and egos abundant, but one of my favorite bits of writer’s commentary last season revolves around Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler) – the eccentric, self-aggrandizing teacher at Barry’s acting studio. In last season’s fifth episode, we see Gene auditioning for a low tier commercial he is obviously not going to get, only for him to return to his fawning students who literally give him a standing ovation any time he shows up to class. Hader revealed that Winkler included the idea because of his own experience as a student of Stella Adler. Details like those are what elevate Hader and Berg’s usage of the trope of entitled LA artists living in a bubble outside of reality.
The same unexpected realism is used to endear the viewer to the Chechen gang at the heart of Barry’s double life as a hitman in LA. Rather than brutal men, the gang leaders who call out Barry’s original LA hit are affable and hopeful immigrants hoping to make a name for themselves in America. Goran(Glen Fleshler) alludes to a disapproving family pulling his strings even as he orders the murder of rival gang member. The humor to be found in the dissonance of dopey wannabes in a world of gang violence is delicately dark, but Hader and Berg artfully acknowledge the moral dilemma of likeable characters doing bad things without endorsing the acts themselves.
My favorite character in the show is NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan), the Chechen leader’s lackey who simultaneously offers sandwiches to the guests of the home and follows orders for brutal murder when necessary. We see his rise as a character throughout the twists of the first season from obvious punching bag to reluctantly compassionate leader. From his performance in the first episode of the year, it’s obvious Hader and Berg have realized Carrigan’s range for the character is bigger than the storyline they gave him for the first eight episodes.
These expansions on the suspenseful plotline of the first season are what have me on the edge of my seat for season two. Barry follows the very real consequences of a completely unreal murderer turned performer. Hader’s ability to portray a man who is so obviously emotionally conflicted while still turning out scenes filled with gut-shaking laughs is unparalleled. If you haven’t watched the first season, you’ll find the thirty minute episodes highly palatable for a binge. Get to watching – the next episode airs this Sunday.