I know that it’s a tad hackneyed to say, but we really are living in a golden age of television. I’m not quite sure why, but we’ve been getting a steady stream of incredibly well-made television for several years now. Thanks to streaming services and premium cable diving full-force into the world of original programming things have been better than ever, telling stories that never would have gotten told in ways that never would have worked. The medium has been evolving, potentially more than any other, and it’s resulted in a huge glut of things that I’ve wanted to see. There’s not time enough in the day to watch all the great shows that are being made, but ever now and then something pops up that is able to muscle its way to the top of my list. Enter HBO’s Barry. I’ve been a fan of most of HBO’s stable of original programming for a while now, and it seems like they have an amazing hit-rate at pulling off concepts that maybe shouldn’t work as well as they end up. So, when I heard that they were releasing a show that was a passion project from Bill Hader where he plays a depressed hitman who learns to act, I was very intrigued. The show then started receiving rave reviews, praised as a veritable masterpiece, more than just a show with a funny premise. This show actually had something to say. And, after quickly racing through the entire first season, I have to admit that I’m blown away with what Hader and company were able to accomplish with this series.
The show follows a man named Barry Berkman, a former marine who has struggled re-acclimating to society, until a family friend named Monroe Fuches approached him to begin work as an assassin. Things went fine for Barry, he was a good killer, but he found his life increasingly becoming empty. So, when Fuches gets an opportunity to send the two of them to Los Angeles to take a contract from the Chechen mob, they jump at it. Barry and Fuches make a deal with a Chechen gangster named Goran to kill a young man who is having an affair with Goran’s wife. Barry begins hunting the man, and in the process learns that he’s a struggling actor. Barry follows the man into one of his acting classes, led by a teacher named Gene Cousineau, and finds the whole thing fascinating. Barry ends up pretending to be one of the student, and finds that he loves acting. And, he also finds himself falling for one of the other students, a woman named Sally. Unfortunately, Barry’s fascination with the acting starts to irritate the Chechens, who are eager for the hit to be done. They end up killing Barry’s mark for him, and take Fuches hostage as recompense for Barry’s dereliction of duty. Which is actually just fine with Barry, who has now decided that he wants to give up on the whole killing thing, and become a full-time actor.
Unfortunately, Fuches cannot abide by this, and to save his own skin ends up manipulating Goran and his lieutenant Hank into giving he and Barry another shot, where they’ll help the Chechens become the most powerful gang in Los Angeles. Fuches starts suggesting a series of raids of a rival Bolivian gang, and helps them plan a whole strategy. This ends up completely falling apart, ending up causing a whole gang-war, all thanks to Fuches’ meddling, with Barry trapped as a pawn. Which makes his attempts at acting even more difficult. Barry isn’t exactly a naturally gifted actor, but finds that when he gets overwhelmed with the emotions caused by his hits he can pull it off. He’s also become completely obsessed with Sally, deciding that the only way he can be happy is if he becomes a successful actor and marries her. He comes on incredibly strong, and only really succeeds in pushing Sally away, while doing his best to avoid the police attention that was brought down on the acting class. Barry is then forced to deal with the Chechen/Bolivian gang war, Fuches’ refusal to let him retire, and remembering his part for an upcoming Shakespeare festival, all while trying to convince himself that the his past doesn’t mean that he can’t be a good person, and that he deserves to live.
Barry really defies explanation. When you hear that it’s a story from Bill Hader about a depressed hitman, it seems like it would end up becoming a very broad comedy about life in Hollywood, full of inside baseball jokes, while occasionally juxtaposing it with violence. And, at times, it is that. But, at other times it’s a shockingly dark examination of PTSD and the idea of the existence of justifiable murder. It’s a hell of a balancing act to pull off, succeeding in being a fun comedy, an action-packed gangster story, and a character piece about a shattered person, but this show somehow pulls it all off. Bill Hader seems to be the driver force of the show, not only starring in it but also directing several episodes, writing most of it, and producing it. This is clearly the story that Hader wanted to tell, and that enthusiasm emanates from the series at all times. It’s hard enough to tell a story with this many moving part, each with their own disparate tones and styles, but to have them each have their own weight, to not let any of them get the short shrift, it’s incredibly impressive. The entire cast is terrific, especially Henry Winkler as the manic Cousineau, Sarah Goldberg as the naively optimistic Sally, and Stephen Root who is putting in a shockingly dark performance as Fuches, but this really does become Bill Hader’s show. He fleshes Barry out into a fully-realized character, putting in some of the best work I’ve ever seen from him, both in comedy and drama.
Because while this show is funny, it also deals with some incredibly heavy topics, in a shockingly mature way. Barry is an incredibly broken man. He found purpose in his life in the military, but when he was sent home he found himself unable to lead anything approaching a normal life. No one was interested in the pain and confusion he felt, and he was manipulated into becoming an assassin, a heartless killer, all while his soul continued to rot from all the senseless killing. There’s nothing in his life that gives him joy, and he’s just frittering away his hours, waiting for death. And then, he finds something. He find friends, a father figure, and someone to love, but most importantly he finds something to give himself purpose with. He takes the frustration, anger, and misery that compose his life and he finds an outlet that lets him express himself. He takes his pain, and he makes art. It doesn’t justify what he’s done. Nothing will. Barry is a murderer, and kills people to protect himself. But, even those who seem irredeemable have the ability to make art, to take their struggle and turn it into something else.
Barry was created by Alec Berg and Bill Hader, 2018.
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