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Barry Berkman is a hitman. He’s also bored, empty, and unfulfilled. The former Marine comes home to a small, semi disheveled apartment and plops down on his bed. Above it is a Metallica poster. It looks more like the place you’d call home when your university first allows you to live off campus and you have very little money to your name. That said, Barry’s a bit dull, so he doesn’t need much to keep him unoccupied.
Then, a dangerous assignment takes him to Los Angeles for his latest kill, and it’s at that point that everything changes. His mark turns out to be a young actor, and as he does recon, he discovers a class full of hopefuls and then realizes, almost by accident, that it’s a life he wants for himself. Instead of garroting people to death, he could be on stage, on TV, and in the movies. The group accepts him, and he then has to balance his duties as a covert hitman with his increasing desire to perform.
It’s a straightforward premise in many respects, yet Bill Hader and Alec Berg’s new HBO comedy takes some detours to keep things interesting. Midway through the first season of the show, which premieres this Sunday night alongside the new season of Berg’s other current property, Silicon Valley, I found myself more invested in the characters than I anticipated, but still wasn’t certain how I felt about the show as a whole.
Don’t get me wrong, I like it. It’s enjoyable and the comedy is subtle but necessary as the subject matter tends to lean heavy on the dark and gloomy side. That description applies to the lead character as well as those he encounters along his journey to try and discover purpose outside of a paycheck. It’s undoubtedly Bill Hader’s first real post-Saturday Night Live role with a chance to help the 39-year-old break free of his sketch and improvisational characters.
More than almost any former SNL cast member in history, whenever you see Hader, you think of him hosting a pseudo-game show or doing his James Carville impression (or any number of others). It’s both a blessing and a curse, because he’s undoubtedly one of the most talented people ever to grace Lorne Michaels’ stage, yet as much a student and lover of film and entertainment as he is, he just couldn’t break through.
At James Franco’s Roast several years ago, dressed as a Jewish Hollywood executive and, as usual, doing a character rather than being himself, Hader poked fun at himself, saying “Bill’s great if you need a character’s best friend’s best friend to ask an exposition question.” Not even the groomsman, and certainly never the groom, even in most of his more prominent appearances, with the notable exception being 2014’s The Skeleton Twins, which is worth going out of your way to see.
Hader’s voice work and his SNL legacy, plus exquisite voice work, have kept him relevant, and his likability and desire to work always gave him a spot amongst his friends and their projects. He and Fred Armisen created Documentary Now! on IFC, which has found moderate success, but the question was whether Bill would ever truly break out as a lead actor.
The answer is still incomplete, but Barry goes farther than anything to this point in providing evidence that he’s close. He’s believable and relatable, and Hader seems at home as Barry Berkman. I was able to stop hearing the SNL music in my head around episode three, and one advantage to this particular character is that Hader also happens to look quite a bit like Michael C. Hall, which makes the hitman role feel more at home. It’s not an identical resemblance of course, more appropriate for Hall if he were being parodied in a Zucker/Proft spoof film, but the facial expressions and the overall aura are similar. So, I saw Berkman as a believable hitman a little sooner than I would have without the coincidental tie-in to Dexter Morgan.
Barry is funny, but the laughs are secondary to the overall storytelling. It’s a dark comedy in every sense of the word, but you find yourself rooting for Berkman almost instantaneously, because there’s very little to dislike in him. He kills people, but that’s really the only negative. The one comparison I would make for this show is a compliment to it, and again it’s imperfect, but I got a little bit of a Grosse Pointe Blank vibe from the show.
Hader’s performance is strong, but his supporting cast is loaded, so he’s not doing it alone. Stephen Root is always great, and as Bill’s handler and partner, Fuches, he has his best television role since Justified and NewsRadio. As funny as he is, Anthony Carrigan’s Noho Hank takes the prize for the most entertaining character on Barry. He’s an extremely dangerous Chechnyan mobster, but he’s also an eccentric crazy person who sends text messages with emojis, memes, and GIFs at the most inopportune times.
Carrigan is AWESOME, I can’t say this strongly enough, and although this is only the third true role of his young career, Noho is written to perfection. He is this show’s Russ Hanneman. Every comedy could use one.
Sarah Goldberg plays Sally Reed, the semi-love interest and the pretty blonde that encourages Barry early and forms a bond with him. She lights up the screen, and furthering the Dexter comparison from above, she has just a hint of Julie Benz in her. Sally deals with anxiety, disappointment, and “almost, but not yet” moments in her fledging career, and also faces her own version of #MeToo at one point. Her character takes an interesting attitudinal turn midway through the season that I didn’t particularly like, because it was such a 180 from what we’d seen up to that point, but in the world Barry inhabits, it made more sense than it might have otherwise. You’ll have to judge for yourself.
And finally, we get to Henry Winkler. Gene Cousineau definitely ain’t The Fonz, but Winkler is still a gem. Some of the best work of the TV veteran’s career has come in oddball characters and off-kilter, strange, sometimes oblivious roles. Barry Zuckerkorn in Arrested Development and Dr. Saperstein in Parks and Recreation might not have started trends like leather jackets and leaping over sharks, but they were both memorable parts of two of the best comedies of the century.
Cousineau is the class instructor and an actor in his own right, although when you see him audition, you recognize he’s by no means a star. Is he stealing money from his students? Maybe. But he’s a terrific shade of grey as a character. He’s ridiculously over the top and Winkler has prove time and time again he can play this overt ridiculousness with a rare simultaneous dead pan and partial self awareness that has made him even more versatile in Hollywood for decades and decades. Gene takes a liking to Detective Moss (Paula Newsome), and the two play off each other exceedingly well. Newsome is the serious cop that’s also a bit of a bumbling fool, which we see early on as she tries to break into an iPhone and locks it almost instantly with erroneous passwords.
The early portion of 2018 has provided many new shows, but not much in terms of quality. Barry is in the upper echelon of what’s fresh on the small screen. It’s not particularly filthy, although there’s some language and some violence. But in comparison to some of HBO’s other comedy and drama properties, it’s very tame. There’s a charm behind it, and although I wasn’t blown away with any surprises and found much of the season predictable, it was an easy watch and left me hoping for more. I like these characters and enjoyed my time with them.
I also feel like there’s much more story that can be told in this world. It should pair well with Silicon, although the two shows are completely different. That’s a good thing. I’m an unabashedly massive fan of Bill Hader, and I admit I’m rooting for him. But, Barry stands on its own. It’s not the best show of the year and at times can move a little slow, but it’s well worth a half hour of your Sunday night or 30 minutes of space each week on your DVR.
Not the most inventive writing, but a good premise, engaging characters, and good chemistry mean Barry gets a B- from me, occasionally rising above that letter grade. It’s a solid start.
I’m @JMartOutkick, but you can call me @JMartBlock.