When Bill Hader left Saturday Night Live on May 18, 2013, no one quite knew what the future held for him, or what kind of career opportunities Hollywood would afford him outside of Studio 8H. Most figured he’d be a popular voice actor, and he was — Pixar’s Inside Out, Monsters University and Finding Dory; DreamWorks Animation’s Turbo; Sony’s Sausage Party and The Angry Birds Movie. Hell, he even voiced Alpha 5 in the Power Rangers movie. And if Hader did nothing else besides funny voices, he’d be set for life. But Bill Hader has always wanted more than that.
I’d seen him in studio comedies like Superbad, Knocked Up, Hot Rod, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Pineapple Express, Tropic Thunder and Adventureland, but it wasn’t until I saw Hader truly shine in 2014’s The Skeleton Twins alongside his SNL cohort Kristen Wiig that I fully appreciated his talent as an actor. Suddenly, the man behind Stefon was popping up in legit indie movies like Maggie’s Plan and The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, and his film career seemed to peak with the male lead in Judd Apatow’s Trainwreck opposite Amy Schumer. Since then, Hader has been content to work on his satirical TV series Documentary Now! — until now, that is.
On Sunday night, Hader returns to the small screen with HBO’s BARRY, the story of a former Marine who puts his combat skills to use as an assassin, but begins to question his entire life when he follows his latest mark to an acting class taught by series standout Henry Winkler. Barry winds up on stage and catches the acting bug, prompting him to rethink his career choices. I know what you’re thinking — another cable series about “showbiz?” Yes, it follows in the footsteps of HBO’s Entourage, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Crashing, as well as Showtime’s Dice, White Famous and I’m Dying Up Here, plus FX’s Louie and Netflix’s Love, among others, but believe me when I say that Barry’s acting class in the Valley is the furthest thing from showbiz, and spoiler alert, no one gets famous over the course of the first season. No, this is more about finding the address for the door that you’re trying to get your foot into as an aspiring actor.
And here’s the other thing… Barry is one of the two best half-hour comedy pilots I’ve seen in nearly five years (along with Netflix’s GLOW), ever since I met another Barry via The Goldbergs in September 2013. And while Barry may not be as laugh-out-loud funny as that ABC sitcom, make no mistake, it is a comedy. It’s a pitch black badass comedy, but a comedy all the same. And it’s kind of brilliant.
What Hader and co-creator Alec Berg have assembled here is the perfect binge-watch. Seriously, I’ve seen the entire series twice, and the second time, I watched all eight episodes in one sitting, as they just seem to fly by. That’s a testament to the sharp writing, which manages to keep things fresh, even as we begin to recognize where the story is going.
Stephen Root co-stars as Barry’s handler, Fuches, who gave Barry some much-needed direction following his stint in the Marines, but who ultimately cares more about the money than Barry’s need to express himself. Speaking of which, at the acting class, Barry meets Sally Reed, an actress who’s desperate to be liked, and will be all too familiar to just about every single viewer in the Los Angeles area. I’ve met hundreds of girls exactly like Sally, and while Sarah Goldberg’s performance borders on the annoying, it’s also note-perfect for the character. You may not love Sally, but you have to respect what Goldberg brings to the role.
Sally essentially becomes Barry’s scene partner, but his new career gets off to a rocky start after his initial hit gets botched. Now he finds himself indebted to a group of Albanian gangsters led by Goran Pazar (Glenn Fleshler) and his right-hand man, Noho Hank (Anthony Carrigan). These two make an unlikely comedy duo, and Carrigan in particular is an absolute scene-stealer here, not just because of his hairless appearance (the actor has Alopecia Areata), but because of his colorful line delivery.
Hot on Barry’s trail is Detective Moss (an excellent Paula Newsome), a single black woman who’s open to a little romance on the side, so long as it doesn’t interfere with her investigation. And where do you think she finds that romance? Why, that would be the still-dashing acting teacher Gene Cousineau (Winkler). The two share a wonderful interplay together and make for good verbal sparring partners as she puts up a weak resistance against his persistent charm. In fact, each episode of Barry cleverly takes its title from a chapter in Gene’s book on acting, in case you were wondering how much influence the character has in the series.
Reactions to Barry have run the gamut. I googled “Barry review” this morning and got “nothing short of brilliant” from Indiewire, “dull [and]baffling” from Newsday, “a must-see tour de force” from Collider and “low-key but likable” from Variety. The show clearly won’t be for everyone, but that’s the HBO way. The network has been embracing dark and/or offbeat for years now on the comedy side. Just look at Eastbound & Down, Vice Principals, Girls, Divorce, Togetherness, Bored to Death, etc. Outside of Game of Thrones, HBO knows it can’t please everyone, and it isn’t trying to anymore. The audience has become too fractured, so they’re better off serving a devoted niche. And what might that niche be?
To be honest, Barry feels like something Shane Black might’ve written, but rather than being big, broad and commercial like Black’s early hits, it’s more in line with the crime comedies he’s been making of late, such as Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and The Nice Guys. The show feels of a part with those two films, in that it successfully balances violence and humor.
While it takes a little time for Hader to settle into the role — early on, it seems like he’s still figuring out how to play Barry and how he wants the character to come across — he delivers a likable lead performance and by the climax of the last episode, he really sells both the “good” inside of Barry, as well as the character’s ruthlessness. It’s tricky to get us to like a murderer, but if the idea of ‘Dexter going to theater camp’ excites you, then Barry is probably for you. You should definitely give it a chance, starting… now.
Barry will air on Sundays at 10:30 p.m. ET/PT on HBO.
Jeff Sneider | Editor in Chief