By Poulomi Das Sep. 24, 2018
Bill Hader’s Barry isn’t refreshing because of how casually it reverses all the crime-thriller tropes but because of how cleverly it employs them. The show’s best laughs arise from the fact that many of its protagonists view the business of killing as just another job.
In the first episode of HBO’s excellent Barry, its lead Barry Berkman (an underrated but very funny Bill Hader) nonchalantly blurts out how “burnt out” he feels at his job. Regular admission – every overworked employee experiences the monotony – except Barry isn’t a victim of a nine-to-five job. He’s a hitman; death is his business. It’s a hilarious moment because the revelation comes right after Barry coolly bumps someone off.
It’s a rebellious route for a crime-comedy to take, considering the decades of romanticisation of the world of crime we’ve experienced on screen. Take Breaking Bad and Dexter – shows where the leads live a double life: It’s the criminal alter-egos of our heroes that awaken their soul, pump some much-needed adrenaline into their lives. TV crime is traditionally coloured by adventurous yet cut-throat, thrilling yet ruthless undertones. It’s precisely the kind of world-building Barry consciously eschews. If Breaking Bad’s Walter White, a chemistry teacher turned meth lord, felt “most alive” while committing a crime, then Barry is the opposite – exhausted at the unfulfilling task of ending lives. Small wonder it snatched the Emmy for Lead and Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series.
Barry isn’t refreshing because of how casually it reverses all the crime-thriller tropes but because of how cleverly it employs them. The show’s best laughs arise from the fact that many of its protagonists view the business of killing as just another job. A Chechen mob-boss Goran and his second-in-command, NoHo, who sends emoji-laden kill requests on text, end up as its funniest characters. There’s an amusing gag where Barry is asked to hold off killing a target because NoHo has sent a lone bullet to the rival gang via DHL – a sinister warning – but it hasn’t yet been delivered.
In another, members of the rival gang relaxing on the sofa, are caught unawares by Barry and are immediately gunned down after a hilarious staring contest. Any other show would probably bloat the moment to a 10-minute intense and gory shooting scene, making you believe that gangsters are perpetually on alert-mode. But Barry refuses to paint them as invincible or as people who are never separated from their weapons, showing them the way they really are – regular people with regular needs, aspirations, fears, and lunacies, who also happen to be in the business of death.
But what makes Barry really stand out, is how it infuses depth and moments of warmth to its premise.
Barry stumbles upon a Los Angeles acting class while following his target and ends up taking it. The premise and its execution is so darkly comic that it might as well have been a Saturday Night Live sketch (Bill Hader, who also created the show and plays the lead role, is a famous alum). And like SNL, Barry is rounded off with an impeccable cast – from Gene, the smooth-talking acting teacher (Emmy-winning Henry Winkler); Sally, the self-absorbed aspiring actress (Sarah Goldberg) to the dysfunctionally paternal Fuches (Stephen Root); and NoHo Hank (Anthony Harrigan), the hilarious deputy to Goran.
But what makes Barry really stand out, is how it infuses depth and moments of warmth to its premise. Barry’s sudden fascination with the acting class isn’t random – it uses it as a device to allow its lead protagonist, also a former marine, who has spent his whole life being on autopilot, to be more in tune with his emotions. There’s a beautiful sequence where Gene rebukes Barry for awfully acting out a scene, accusing him of being deferential to everyone but himself. He pushes him to stand up for himself before asking Barry to do the scene once again, and in the next moment, it cuts to Barry using that advice and actually expressing his needs.
It’s also why most of Barry’s “acting” unfolds in his daily life (although, it’s a treat to see Hader play a role that requires him to act badly). And the best evidence comes midway through the show’s fifth episode. Barry faces an atypical dilemma when his handler Fuches orders him to kill someone: For the first time, Barry doesn’t just hear his handler’s orders but actually dissects them.
In that moment, Barry feels empathy for his target – an emotion that he discovered at his acting class – which he is only now getting to tap into and express. It’s an explosive scene, elevated by Hader’s expressive face that revels in his duality so much so that it’s impossible to tell whether he’s overwhelmed by remorse or relieved by his own humanity. Watching the scene, I was torn between being sympathetic to Barry and being repulsed by his dehumanisation.
This scene neatly encapsulates everything Barry stands for – revelling in cultivating empathy for its flawed protagonists and then in the next moment, making you wrestle with that realisation. Yet through it all, there is no judgement – neither of the characters nor of the audience who side with them. And this is the reason Barry is possibly the finest comedy you haven’t heard of on a streaming platform. Come for the laughs, stay for the warmth.
When not obsessing over TV shows, planning unaffordable vacations, or stuffing her face with french fries, Poulomi likes believing that some day her sense of humour will be darker than her under-eye circles.