Barry Season 1 (2018)
Written by Alec Berg, Bill Hader, Duffy Boudreau, Sarah Solemani, Ben Smith, Emily Heller, and Liz Sarnoff
Directed by Bill Hader, Maggie Carey, Hiro Murai, and Alec Berg
Barry Berkman lives a lonely, sad life. He spends his time alone and only goes out when his handler, Fuches gives him a call. Barry is a former marine who has become an assassin for hire, traveling around the country and killing members of organized crime cartels. Barry’s latest venture has him holed up in Los Angeles to perform a hit for the Chechen mob. During his off time, the hitman wanders into an acting class and falls in love. Suddenly, Barry is working to be an actor, hiding this fact from Fuches and trying to balance his assassin work with his stage practice. A romance develops between Barry and a fellow student who creates even more trouble for the conflicted.
Barry was quite a surprise to me. I had seen the marketing for the series and wasn’t very excited to watch it, but after the first episode, I found myself very compelled. When you hear the premise, it sounds like a bad 1980s action-comedy, but the first important step had Bill Hader in the lead. Instead of a cliche Italian mob guy we have this very meek, unassuming Midwestern man that doesn’t immediately exude “assassin.” Partnering Hader with Stephen Root as Fuches was the next brilliant move. Root is one of the actors that is “that guy you saw in that thing” and has proven to be such a talented chameleon.
Fuches is pure pathos which provides excellent contrast for the stoic Barry at the beginning of the series. As our title character gets deeper into the craft of acting, his emotions rise to the surface. At first, his tragic line delivery is played for laughs, the typical stiff lousy actor. There’s a moment near the end of this first season where Barry is forced to do something so horrible that it breaks him. Immediately after he has to rush to the theater for a full performance and his most raw performance emerges. In the aftermath, he’s praised by his teacher and colleagues, but Barry and we know there is nothing to celebrate here, that everything that came out of him on stage is the kind of pain you never get over.
There are two clear worlds present in the series with two groups of cast members: The Chechens and The Acting Class. Glenn Fleshler plays Goran, the head of the Chechens and is a character actor who is appearing in almost everything in the last year. He does an excellent job of making Goran comedic and threatening. It is Noho Hank however that steals the show on this end of Barry’s life. Actor Anthony Carrigan plays Hank in such an odd manner you can’t help but be captivated when he is onscreen. The character is the most personable and courteous made man, complimenting Barry before trying to kill him. It’s a performance that is hard to describe and a case of where you do have to see it for yourself.
On the acting side of things, we have Henry Winkler as Gene Cousineau, the teacher for Barry’s class. Winkler is playing a wonderful mix of pretentious actor and passionately romantic. He’s made even the more interesting because he plays a classical Fool in many ways, buffoonish but also profound. It’s very different from his turn as Barry Zuckercorn on Arrested Development. I honestly found the cast in the acting side fine but not the standout elements of the cast. They are funny but so is the Chechen side of the story. If there had been a slightly larger tonal contrast, it could have felt like an impressive play on genres.
When the two worlds collide in the third act of the season, you feel all the work Hader and crew have put in on the writing and directing end of things. The look of Barry isn’t something new; the cinematography is pretty standard for HBO. Some exciting episode openings play around with camera angles and perspectives, but the look stays relatively mundane. Barry is all about the performances, especially Hader’s who goes to intense places I wasn’t aware he was capable of going. The first season of Barry is surprisingly heavy, more meat on the bone than I expected when I started watching.