Current hitman and aspiring actor Barry Berkman dreads having to perform another murder and, worst of all, matinees.
Four years have passed since “Barry” was originally announced, but the wait has proven to be worth it. Hailing from the combined creative forces of former “Saturday Night Live” star Bill Hader and seasoned TV comedy writer Alec Berg (“King of the Hill,” “Silicon Valley”), “Barry” starts by presenting us with the workaday life of the titular Barry, a budget midwestern assassin. He’s good at what he does and his handler Monroe Fuches (Stephen Root) keeps the cases coming without fail. But somewhere along the way, Barry lost what little sense of fulfillment he had in life. With no friends, no family, no hobbies, and no aspirations, he was reduced to no more than his job. Just another cog in the machine, albeit a lethal one. On the behest of Goran Pazar, an upset husband and Chechen mob boss seeking revenge, a down-beaten Barry flies west to Los Angeles to assassinate Ryan Madison (Tyler Jacob Moore), the young gym trainer who has exceeded his professional duties with Pazar’s wife. What Barry doesn’t know is that this trip, predicated on no more than the anger of a cuckolded Chechen man, would bring Barry the first joy he’s felt in years.
Dutifully tailing his target throughout the greater Los Angeles area and its accompanying traffic, Barry discovers that Ryan is a hopeful (and soon enough, completely hopeless) actor when he stops by at a local theater. Missing the heat and X-ray vision that so many humans lack, Barry is forced to leave the car and get a closer look if he wants to keep track of Ryan’s whereabouts. After making his way in, he sticks to his preferred dark corner and begins to observe the stage before Ryan — clad in dreads for a pivotal scene as Gary Oldman in “True Romance” — goes up on stage and calls out for volunteers. With no sane and/or willing participants, Ryan’s obliviousness gets the best of him, and he calls out for “the guy in the back.” Barry hesitates, but relents, dryly complying with the script handed to him. A squatting Ryan makes a fool of himself and Barry’s performance is robotic at best, but the other struggling actors in the audience clap anyway. The ability to repress emotion is a trait that comes in handy for hitmen but much less so for aspiring actors. Barry discovers his passion for theater in the praise he receives, out of pity or not.
External forms of validation are an actor’s bread and butter, and Barry learns that he’s no exception when he’s invited to hang out with the others at a local bar after the night’s performances. Even worse, he’s beginning to bond with these people despite a lack of any concerted effort put toward socializing. Executing a stranger is easy enough, but executing a fellow thespian who wants nothing but the glory of the silver screen?
“Barry” cuts through a bitterness that colors its world of executions and existential crises with an expert sense of hysteria-inducing humor and pacing well-suited for the eight 30-minute episodes this season has in store. There are multiple instances in which the show’s dialogue seems like it could be effortlessly slipped into an episode of “Seinfeld,” (no doubt due in part to Berg’s experience in its writers room) and is all the greater for it. The characters’ complaints about the costume choices and stage direction in between scenes of suburban garage torture are an advanced exercise in human pettiness.
The show sits somewhere between “30 Rock” and “Baskets” in its humor, settling in the groove of a mundane reality with a surreal fringe punctuated by bouts of violence and heavy arts references. Unlike “30 Rock,” where every minute is packed with as much dialogue and visual humor as possible, there’s much more breathing time in the understated reality of “Barry.” Scenes aren’t afraid to linger, make us uncomfortable, and really sell a glance or stare under Bill Hader’s direction. A small, but strong, cast with heavy hitters such as Root and Henry Winkler, the latter starring as the passionately cruel (and vice versa) acting coach Gene Cousineau who fancies himself more Juilliard than geriatric, are rounded out with fresher faces that keep the show from just becoming a place for SNL alum to make cameos. If the first two episodes are a strong indication of the season that follows, then “Barry” might easily stake a claim as 2018’s best new comedy.
Runs: Sundays at 10:30 PM on HBO
Starring: Bill Hader, Stephen Root, Henry Winkler, Sarah Goldberg
Created By: Bill Hader & Alec Berg
Image Courtesy of HBO