Bill Hader was meant to play a killer.
He has the face of one, a creepy grin and glass-eyed stare he honed on SNL. He's crafted so many creepy and off-center characters—the lavishly gay Stefano who knows all the hot clubs in NYC or Dateline's Keith Morrison are among his best—it's hard to choose from his greatest hits. But Hader, like many other great SNL regulars, had more to offer the world. Amy Poehler and Kristen Wiig went on to apply their SNL charm to projects with more range, space, and time to develop characters with greater emotional depth. So, Hader's next big project on HBO, Barry, confirms he's capable of drawing out the absurdity of his characters in ways usually not permitted in sketch comedy. Hader co-created, stars in, and directs Barry, which feels like a demonstration of Hader's strengths: His comedic timing coupled with the irony and grotesque reality of Barry's world makes for a classic anti-hero drama that's eerie and strangely provocative.
When Barry is about acting, it's a perfectly balanced mélange of a show about a killer and a show about creative types who willingly embrace the chaos in creating and killing their characters on stage. It's also about the familiarity of chaos in regular life—FBI agents in Barry tend to be conveniently incompetent and the gangsters and hitmen are levelheaded, letting their daughters have sleepovers, commenting on the weather, talking about what they should have for dinner whilst torturing people in chairs—where charming moments of life are met with darker counterparts like death.
Barry, a gainfully employed hitman, is incapable of experiencing empathy—naturally, it's a part of himself that inconveniences his field of work—and Hader does a brilliant job of emoting Barry's disconnect with real human emotions and capacities. It's only amplified in his acting classes where Barry uses the time as a quasi-therapy session, embracing these capacities only in fiction.
Barry's field of work requires that he remain anonymous and unseen, but he's attracted to the attention he receives from acting—standing on stage, the awkward moments of silence after a monologue is finished, the applause, constructive criticism, and dust floating in the air—and he finds pleasure in using his characters as an outlet for the parts of himself he's killed off to be a hitman. The whole exchange is kind of poetic, minus Barry shooting and killing people to pay rent.
Set in L.A., Barry's family of characters are all misplaced and attached to a city that has no place for them—there's an edge to them, something about the way they act as though they have nothing to lose. The gangsters are goofy, yes, but they are the type to cut your tongue out with a drill, so again, the give and take of irony and violence is well-balanced making for a distinct style and tone.
Where this series will go in the future is an exciting prospect. Henry Winkler is delightful as a pretentious acting coach and Anthony Carrigan revitalizes the bad/goofy guy trope in TV. It's not that crazy to think, though, that a hit man could be taking an acting class a few blocks down the street. This world, after all, is a crazy time to be alive. Barry is tuned into to that feeling, the anticipation right before everything goes black, before the stage lights go off.
Shaun Harris is a poet, freelance writer, and editor published in avant-garde, feminist journals. Lover of warm-toned makeup palettes, psych-rock, and Hilton Als. Her work has allowed her to copyedit and curate content for various poetry organizations in the NYC area.
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