Bill Hader, the comic chameleon who has appeared in everything from Saturday Night Live to Amy Schumer films, is the star of Barry, the HBO show he directs, scripts and executive produces. Nominated for nine Primetime Emmys, Barry belongs to the new, exciting roster of television comedy that also includes Atlanta, Silicon Valley and Bojack Horseman, genre-bending shows that explore dark themes under the guise of humour.
Barry Berkman (Hader) is a hitman hired by a Los Angeles-based Chechen gang to kill a man who is having an affair with the wife of the gang leader. While following his mark, Berkman accidentally attends a theatre class, an experience that proves transformative. The series charts his unsuccessful efforts to quit contract killing for a life on the stage.
The two sides of Berkman’s life are represented by Monroe Fuches (Stephen Root) and Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler). Fuches is a friend of Berkman’s father, a sort of agent who handles the clients for Berkman’s darker profession. Cousineau is the acting trainer whose class Berkman eventually joins. Ignorant of Berkman’s status as an assassin, he keeps asking his student to “show courage” and “drop your guard”.
Barry’s comedy emerges from the situations Berkman gets into on account of his crying need to reform himself. He is unable to kill the Chechens’ target after he does his first scene with him, a scene in which he is horrendously wooden. He is both mesmerised and repelled by the ability of fellow actors, reinforced by the tough-talking Cousineau, to use every weapon in their emotional arsenal in the furtherance of their acting goals.
Berkman falls for Sally Reed (Sarah Goldberg), another student at Cousineau’s acting class who tells herself that she would give up anything in the pursuit of acting. While the commitment is admirable, it is also the cause of deep unhappiness. Hader and fellow creator Alec Berg have imagined Sally as a stereotype, a woman so yearning for success that she has few, if any, redeeming qualities.
Goran Pazar (Glenn Fleshler) and NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan) are the Chechens, one brusque, the other smooth, both entirely nonchalant about murder. This dichotomy expectedly fuels the narrative, and when Berkman’s first hit does not materialise, it spirals into a sequence of give-and-take transactions that leave behind a trail of blood.
Hader is excellent as the killer-cum-actor who switches between his roles with unease, frustration and, ultimately, fatalism. The show upends common perceptions of art as balm for the battered soul. His acting life brings Berkman a measure of solace, but also a keener perspective on himself than he has ever entertained, a prospect fraught with peril.