Hey, you there – sitting on the couch trying to distract yourself from the trashfire current events of 2018. Question for you. Why aren’t you watching Barry?
Why You Probably Aren’t: I mean I don’t know, maybe you are?? The truth is that despite being a dear, old friend, TV and I just aren’t as close as we used to be. And yes, maybe that’s partly my fault. I have been sneaking around watching lots of movies lately. In my defense, there are a lot of great movies out right now. And so much ‘meh’ TV. The Handmaids Tale is depressing. Westworld is confusing. The Americans is ending.
Or maybe there’s just too much TV? Maybe Barry isn’t on your radar because between the 50 new shows Netflix greenlights every time one of their employees sneezes, and enjoying the many hairstyles of young George Clooney as you thirstily rewatch ER on Hulu, who can even keep up. Without a really big star (that’s Bill Hader on the poster. yeah, the Stefon guy from SNL) or really big buzz, it actually makes sense that Barry would fall through the cracks, like a peanut butter M&M you can’t be bothered to fish out of your couch cushions.
From the outside, Barry looks like a small show – a half hour comedy with dark impulses that mostly deals with the emotional life of someone who’s not very emotional. AND you gotta have an HBO subscription (or at least access to a dear friend or family member’s account) to watch it. But I promise, Barry is worth every text you have to send your mom reminding her to get you that sweet, sweet password. In fact, it’s one of the best shows of 2018 so far.
Why You Should Be: Well, see above. It’s one of the best we have, and that’s for so many reasons. During this drought of quality TV (when is The Good Place coming back again??) I was thrilled to find a show that had me coming back every week, excited for each new episode. A big part of that is Barry himself, a character who’s not like anyone else on television. Now yes, Barry’s a hitman, he kills people for money, and so in that sense he’s another prestige TV antihero. And antiheroes have been done. To death. Don Draper, Walter White. (Other men whose first and last name start with the same letter I guess). But Barry’s not like them. He’s not snarky or suave, not full of himself or high on his power. He doesn’t wear his dangerous profession and troubled past with a sexy swagger. You could call him an anti-antihero – a regular guy who’s pretty depressed about how messed up his life has turned out.
Barry doesn’t get into professional killing for the perks or the badass cred, but because he’s good at it. And he’s good at it because it’s what he did during his military service as a marine. When we first meet him, Barry’s just another struggling vet with a shitty apartment, isolated and forgotten by everyone except an old family friend, Fuches (Stephen Root, intense as always), Though I use the term “friend” here loosely – Fuches is a guy who sees an opportunity to take advantage of Barry’s unsavory skills once he’s out of the service, and ropes him into a life of crime. So, yeah, great friend.
Barry’s tired and he’s lonely and he hates his job, so besides the part about work trips involving taking out a member of the Chechen mob, it’s easy to relate. And Hader’s performance is key in making Barry relatable. It’s quiet but affecting. He’s not the hitman you’ve seen in other films and shows – jaded and grim from being morally compromised. He’s just morally lost. In the first episode, Hader gives Barry the vacant and weary gaze of someone who’s used to being on autopilot – used to following orders and doing terrible things, trapped in a life he has little choice over.
Which makes it all the more fascinating when later in the same episode, after being sent to LA on a job, Barry suddenly finds himself with a choice to make. Somehow he ends up onstage in an acting class, reading a scene with Ryan, the mark he was sent to kill. In the class, he’s surrounded by a group of aspiring Hollywood types. They could be the discarded extras from La La Land, most of them with more dreams than talent. But that doesn’t stop them from having those dreams and pursuing them doggedly. Perhaps inspired by their optimism and inflated egos, for the first time we see Barry start to look….awake. And alive. Sure, he’s there to put a bullet in Ryan at the behest of the aforementioned Chechen mob. For him that would actually be easy compared to the task he stumbles into – having to perform that short scene with the rest of the class as his audience. It’s an act that requires him to access his feelings (which he’s terrible at, he reads the scene like a zombie) instead of repressing them. Pushed out his comfort zone, Barry seems to realize that he could actually have agency over his decisions and the course of his life. Suddenly aware there’s something out there that he might love doing, he can envision a life where he looks forward to each day rather than just trudging through another miserable, soul-crushing assignment.
So he chooses not to kill Ryan (thought he does end up entangled in the events surrounding his eventual death), and to start attending the acting class. The realization of his burgeoning passion for acting changes Barry’s whole outlook. And like most important realizations, it’s partially facilitated by Henry Winkler, playing a very small-time, yet very demanding acting coach as only Henry Winkler can.
Winkler’s Gene Cousineau is one of a strong cast of supporting characters, who all fit within Barry’s various plotlines (actors, criminals, all very LA). In the same episode we get a wild shoot-out between Barry’s makeshift crew and some Bolivian druglords, intercut with a fellow actor Sally (Sarah Goldberg) trying to cope with the predatory men she runs into at every level of the entertainment industry. There’s also the mobsters, very funny and thankfully playing against Eastern European mobster stereotypes for the most part, and the cops, pulling the net tighter and tighter around Barry’s criminal activity as he strains to adopt all the 2018 trappings of normalcy – girlfriend, button shirts, grilling in the backyard with Jon Hamm, Facebook.
These B stories have their strengths – Anthony Carrigan as Noho Hank, the most polite yuppie mobster there ever was, is truly hilarious – and weaknesses – Sally is selfish and manipulative and overall not a good person. She’s also the primary object of Barry’s fantasies about having a normal life. While it’s refreshing for a female character and love interest to be something more than sweet or sexy, sometimes her assholery makes it hard to care about her character at all, or to see why Barry does.
Ultimately that small misstep is outweighed by the show’s charisma and Hader’s lead performance. As Barry struggles to leave his painful past behind, his soldierly reserve starts to crack under a growing sense of fatigue and frustration. How can he discard an identity he never asked for in order to become someone new, someone he doesn’t even really know how to be? In this dark first season, the small twinge of hope Barry feels when he’s doing something he loves is what gets him through one disaster to the next, and it’s what had me glued to every second of this compellingly original new series.
The first 8 episodes of Season 1 of Barry are currently streaming on HBO and HBO Go.