Arts tv review

If jokes could kill

A review of HBO’s ‘Barry’

8558 ivy li   bill hader barry press photo
Bill Hader stars in HBO series 'Barry.'

Season 1 Episodes 1–4
Directed by Bill Hader, Alec Berg, and Maggie Carey
Written by Bill Hader, Alec Berg, Duffy Boudreau, Elizabeth Sarnoff, and Sarah Solemani
Starring Bill Hader, Sarah Goldberg, Stephen Root
Now Playing

What do you get when you take a depressed hitman and drop him in Los Angeles’s most unexceptional acting class? Surprisingly, a story that is as thoughtful as it is hilarious. Barry’s premise seems to be the gift that keeps on giving for writer-directors Alec Berg (Seinfeld, Silicon Valley) and Bill Hader (Saturday Night Live, South Park, Documentary Now!).

Barry is the story of a despondent, awkward hitman living in Cleveland who is relocated to Los Angeles for a hit commissioned by the Chechen mob. After tailing his target into an acting class, Barry (Bill Hader) involuntarily winds up on stage, performing in front of a small audience. To his surprise, Barry finds himself enchanted by the limelight and decides to pursue his newfound passion of acting. However, he soon discovers the difficulty of reconciling a high-profile hobby with a job that demands discretion. As the show develops, Barry is torn between chasing his dreams of Hollywood stardom and being dragged ever deeper into his debts to the world of organized crime.

Barry’s story certainly makes for a unique character that is oddly compelling and yet frustrating. Watching him evolve from a detached melancholiac to someone slowly building relationships and pursuing an unrealistic but heartwarming dream is incredibly engaging. The series has a sense of momentum that propelled me through the first four episodes, all that HBO gave me access to. Unfortunately, Barry’s premise demands a protagonist who is delusional and often socially unaware. While I respect the decision to pursue such a unique protagonist, there are times when I felt that the writers were forcing the character into acting unrealistically dense for the purpose of creating unnecessary conflicts.

Regardless, the side characters of Barry walk a perfect balance between being caricatures satirizing the Los Angeles entertainment subculture and three-dimensional personalities with unexpectedly moving subplots. This is especially evident with Sally, a character I dismissed early on as a two-dimensional love interest for the protagonist. I was pleasantly surprised with how much time the show invested in portraying her journey navigating the gruelling entertainment industry and found her subplot to be as compelling and substantive as Barry’s own character arc.

The humor written into Barry is as hysterical as it is tactfully placed. The atmosphere of the show can change from hilariously absurd to contemplative and dark at a moment’s notice, yet nothing feels out of place. Violence and drama in Barry are never used as vehicles for cheap gags or dark humor. Though the series markets itself as a dark comedy, the bleaker scenes in Barry carry a substantial amount of emotional weight.

While I wouldn’t have expected anything less than hysterical from comedic veterans Bill Hader and Alec Berg, I wasn’t prepared to be pulled into a show that would deal with themes like death, isolation, ambition, and escape as seriously as Barry does. The series strikes a good balance between being humorous yet thoughtful in exploring unexpectedly dark themes, all the while satirizing the entertainment industry. While the characterization is sometimes inconsistent, Barry and Sally’s journeys are incredibly compelling to watch, lending the show a momentum that makes it remarkably binge-worthy. Ultimately, Barry makes for a unique, absorbing series that blends action, comedy, and drama masterfully.

Barry is available on HBO Go and HBO Now.