Bill Hader and Alec Berg, the creators of HBO’s dark comedy Barry, mine a considerable amount of heartfelt insight from their show’s farcical premise: Barry (Hader) is a depressed hitman who falls in love with acting after stumbling into an acting class while on a mission in Los Angeles. This fish-out-of-water scenario results in predictable observations about such things as the vapidity of L.A. theater culture, and less predictable ruminations on the difficulty of overcoming depression and bettering one’s self.
The depiction of Hollywood in Barry is familiar. This is a landscape full of single-minded, desperate strivers who are propped up as punchlines for many of the show’s jokes. While occasionally cynical toward Barry’s new surroundings, however, the series offers an ultimately compassionate profile of his foolhardy struggle. Throughout, he attempts to balance his assassin’s life with a burgeoning love for acting, but things, of course, spin hilariously out of control. The series homes in on the paradox obstructing his happiness, to complement comedy with the question of whether Barry is beholden to his gifts: He’s a prodigious killer who finds no joy in his trade, and a decidedly untalented actor who finds satisfaction in his new hobby.
The empathy that’s invited for Barry is also ultimately bestowed on his acting classmates, even if they remain, until the end, hysterically overmatched by their ambitions. Their tendency toward melodrama in casual social situations, like their occasional quibbling over roles in their low-rent Shakespeare production, is rooted in a genuine dedication to their craft. And their earnest commitment and general support for one another in class suggest that they might evolve beyond their single-mindedness if they, like Barry, could just catch a break. And while they aren’t particularly great actors (though none is as cringingly bad as Barry is), the series makes a compelling argument for their choosing lofty goals, no matter how unlikely.
Barry’s desperate need to leave his past behind is the show’s engrossing emotional through line. He acknowledges that he might not ever be able to trade a life of crime for one of acting—a fact that poignantly impacts each instance of him smiling as though he doesn’t remember how, or reacting to kindness with surprise. Though the series never gets to the root of his apparent emotional trauma, his woundedness nonetheless acts as an effective balance to the reprehensible actions we see him commit. His self-improvement is realistic, precisely because it comes in fits and starts.
The universe of Barry is marked by a style of absurdism and surrealism that recalls FX’s Atlanta, another comedy about a man struggling to improve his station in life. The Chechen mobsters for whom Barry works have their odd quirks, texting him Bitmojis and offhandedly referencing self-help books such as The Four Agreements. Gene (Henry Winkler), Barry’s acting teacher, is so eccentric that it’s impossible to discern when he’s being serious, which appears to be either always or never. Barry has an absorbing, dreamlike quality that, when punctuated with extreme violence, appears nightmarish.
That sensation is heightened in two episodes helmed by frequent Atlanta director Hiro Murai. The filmmaker often leans on stationary wide shots, rather than the close-ups commonly used for comedic effect, to highlight the peculiarity of Barry’s experiences. He positions Barry behind characters as they talk, emphasizing his alienation and aligning us with him in his decidedly odd surroundings. Both of these episodes end with impactful, imaginatively rendered set pieces that heighten the stakes of Barry’s mob involvement, and underscore the show’s darkness. And throughout, Murai makes the strip malls and apartments of L.A. feel simultaneously familiar and strange.
Absurd flourishes are a source of comedy throughout Barry, occasionally imbuing the narrative with an arbitrary quality. Events occur in Barry’s life that defy logic: The police, investigating a series of crimes connected to Barry, bumble along as though they’ve never handled an investigation before, and after Barry’s partner in a brief romantic fling becomes mysteriously distant, his overreaction is no less inexplicable. Such moments service the show’s convoluted plot, which operates as a comedy of errors. But, especially in the case of Barry’s personal life, they’re likewise a result of us knowing very little about Barry’s past, and even less about the pasts of his classmates. Hader and Berg appear uninterested in revealing more than what is communicated by their catchy premise, seemingly figuring that watching Barry navigate the criminal underworld and the cutthroat acting world will remain interesting and entertaining enough. And for the most part, they’re right.