TV

You’re About To Be Obsessed With ‘Barry’, HBO’s Twisted New Comedy

A professional hitman decides to become an actor. What could go wrong?

Barry

HBO’s new dark comedy Barry packs quite the premise: a miserable hitman discovers he wants to become an actor while tracking a target in Los Angeles.

It sounds a little like the ‘90s romantic hitman comedy Gross Point Blank, only this one is all about the mundane life of the depressed assassin at the centre of the show, played by Bill Hader.

It manages to blend the slog of suburban crime in Breaking Bad with the inside Hollywood aspect of Entourage (minus the dude-bro-ness) and the strange ‘art imitating life imitating art’ element of Tropic Thunder. This might not be the show that fills the direwolf-shaped hole Game of Thrones will leave in HBO’s schedule come 2019, but it’s a sturdy blend of action and comedy nonetheless.

And one thing is for sure: you’ll never look at Hader the same way again after Barry.

Hader Who?

You’ll recognise Bill Hader from his eight-season run on Saturday Night Live. He’s one of the most reliable performers in American comedy, the guy who has always been the best man but never the groom.

Hader’s been in a bunch of American comedies — Superbad, Hot Rod, Adventureland, Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Trainwreck — often stealing the film away from its stars. In 2014, he took a shot at drama appearing alongside SNL alum, Kirsten Wiig, in the independent film The Skeleton Twins. Hader showed serious skills as an actor and the potential to be one of those comics who give drama a shot — think Adam Sandler in Punch Drunk Love.

Barry continues where The Skeleton Twins left off and it’s a thrill to see Hader get the spotlight.

Meet Barry

At its core, Barry is about a sad person committing to changing themselves by finding a purpose, but learning that old habits — in this case quite literally — die hard.

A former marine who has been trained to bench his emotions in favour of being able to kill without hesitation, Barry’s emotions are suppressed. But they’re still there, and they explode unexpectedly when he’s ‘acting’ — which his acting teacher (Henry Winkler doing his best work since The Fonz) confuses for a genuine performance.

And here’s where Barry gets complex: because Hader is playing multiple versions of Barry. There’s the real Barry, hitman Barry, wannabe actor Barry — the different sides of his personality he shows to suit different situations or keep his professional life a secret, a balancing act that becomes more difficult as he becomes more committed to acting. As he’s advised in one episode: “Acting is a direct conflict with being someone who anonymously kills people.”

Hader effortlessly switches between the different Barrys and it’s remarkable how much is packed into one performance.

A New Type Of Anti-Hero

Of course, Barry gets dragged back to the hitman lifestyle each time he tries to take a step forward into his new life as an actor.

Barry pushes its main character to extremes but it expertly works through cycles of self-destruction when it comes to depression and addiction, looking at how finding a purpose can become addictive when you feel like garbage. This is where the series finds its pathos — Barry is constantly resetting his behaviour by telling himself bad things won’t happen again, but they always do.

Often the show is brutal with the ways its lead character protects his shot at being happy. Barry does terrible thing to keep secrets hidden, often at the expense of the show’s more likeable characters. We should be used to empathising with anti-hero lead characters by now — after all, HBO is the network Tony Soprano helped build — but his ruthlessness can still be hard to digest.

Still, Barry has the aesthetic of prestige American crime dramas like The Wire, Dexter and True Detective, but it’s a sly ruse because the comedy slays more than the hitman setup. It deconstructs our obsession with bad guys with a heart of gold, as well as poking fun at Hollywood and the shallow side of chasing dreams in LA with stealthy humour.

Like its namesake, Barry may sound unassuming. But don’t overlook this remarkable show.

Barry starts on Foxtel’s Showcase and Foxtel Now on March 26.

Cameron Williams is a writer and film critic based in Melbourne who occasionally blabs about movies on ABC radio. He has a slight Twitter addiction: @MrCamW.