'Barry': TV Review | SXSW 2018
HBO's dark comedy series starring Bill Hader, which premiered at the Texas fest, is invigorated by bold creative decisions.
Mixing comedy and violence is one of the most challenging tonal issues on the screen. It's been tried by many, but very few — FX's Fargo being the best example — can pull it off with the kind of fearless exactitude it needs. HBO's dark comedy Barry, which premiered Friday at SXSW and debuts March 25 on the pay cabler, is at first plagued by apparent indecision or ill-advised choice in style, but then races to the end of its eight-episode run as one of the weirdest and most compelling experiments in American comedy in years.
It succeeds in getting there, ironically, mostly because it never seems to come to terms with its tone, which is at once counterintuitive to clarity of vision and also a wonderful and (possibly?) accidental bit of audacious originality. In all honestly, it's hard to tell if series creators and writers Bill Hader (Saturday Night Live, Trainwreck, Documentary Now!) and Alec Berg (Silicon Valley) intended Barry to be so ridiculously different at its ending compared to its beginning — or whether they just wanted something ridiculous.
In either case, the end result is fascinating, weird and gripping.
Hader, known primarily for his comedy, and Berg, whose credits (Curb Your Enthusiasm, Seinfeld, etc.) are also in comedy, set up a premise that has both potential and pitfalls: A combat Marine clearly scarred from war (Hader) becomes a Cleveland-based hitman working, almost by accident, for his uncle (Stephen Root), who accepts an assignment to send Barry to Los Angeles to kill an aspiring actor. As Barry follows his mark into a theater space where an acting class is happening (run by Henry Winkler, who is brilliant), he finds not only the purpose that has seemingly eluded him since returning from military service, but also a possible girlfriend in the eager and earnest fledgling actress Sally (Sarah Goldberg, also outstanding).
You can see the comedy pretty clearly. Emotionally shuttered hitman moves to Los Angeles and becomes an actor. Despite some early doses of violence to illustrate that Hader's Barry is, in fact, a damned good shot and cold-blooded as well, the series leans into the absurd, with Winkler's beautifully spot-on acting teacher (and failed actor) Gene Cousineau providing plenty of moments as he exasperatedly tries to coach a stiff, almost narcotically unexpressive Barry to embrace improvisation.
Cousineau: "Ok, we're at the grocery story. We're walking down the aisle. What do you see?"
Cousineau: "Gum is at the register, Barry."
Barry struggles to imagine what else would be in the aisle. He can't "see" it, he says. Finally he blurts out, "Soup."
Cousineau: "Surrender to the soup, Barry."
Barry: "I don't know what that means."
Cousineau: "What's your favorite soup?"
Barry: "I don't know…broth?"
Cousineau: "I need help!"
Winkler's effortless comic timing is a thing of beauty and recalls his Arrested Development days. Hader's cluelessness is not played as dumb so much as a reflection of his state of soullessness. The first few episodes, written by Hader and Berg and directed by Hader, tap into this comedy but also splice in bits of disturbing violence as the show begins to look like a vehicle for Hader to have something to say, dramatically. As it leans in that direction, the show works. But then Barry introduces a groups of Chechen mobsters and, while they are mostly comic Eastern Bloc caricatures and foils, the group also includes Noho Hank (Anthony Carrigan), a ridiculously over-the-top, possibly gay and very pop-culture-savvy guy who, with his bald head and hairless face (Carrigan has alopecia), also pops off the screen as the series (and Carrigan's strong performance) makes him the center of the contrasting comedy.
At this point, with Carrigan and Winkler, not to mention Root, who has been a careerlong comic assassin, and Hader at the helm, Barry is very clearly a comedy — right? Yes, except for all those nagging moments with the drama and the violence (and when it stops spoofing Hollywood and the acting business by showing how emotionally difficult it can be, complete with Goldberg's Sally having a #MeToo moment).
These early episodes are where Barry is at its most conflicted and, depending on your mood at that moment, possibly least effective. It looks to be crumbling trying to wedge the darker elements (especially the bloodshed) into the laughter. Right about then it's easy to appreciate how consistent Fargo has been over three seasons of playing the polar opposite game.
And yet, even in the early going on Barry, there's something that keeps you wanting to see more. All of the acting performances are exceptional (particularly Paula Newsome as a detective on whom Winkler's Cousineau has his lothario eyes). The show is funny ("I think Shakespeare whiffed on this one," Barry says at one point) — even the over-the-top stuff that doesn't seem to fit. Hader gives off that Bill Murray vibe of an actor hell-bent on transitioning to some darker dramatic place and each episode reveals enough to want a longer look at it.
Then, out of nowhere, Barry makes a what-the-hell-is-it-doing sprint to the finish line, becoming provocatively sad and insightful in parts, utterly disturbing in its violence and shock in others, dramatically escalating the darker side of the series to great effect.
It's like Hader and Berg said, Screw it, let's do this — like Barry decided it would be a one-and-done type of series that the Brits do so well, and releasing the brakes on the story as the violence and tensions mount is both thrilling and risky.
On the way, the series gets better at that difficult tonal balance. For example, Barry befriends another battle-tested Marine who is clearly crazy but worms his way into a raid Barry is doing on a stash house.
Barry: "It's just you and I and there could be, like, up to 20 guys in there."
Marine: "It's going to be a party."
Barry, serious and sighing: "It's not really a party time. There's a good chance we'll die."
Marine: "Fuck yeah." (Raises hand.)
Barry: "It's not really a high-five situation."
Marine: (Balls up hand.)
Barry: "Or a fist-bump situation."
It's funny. Also tense. And the scene that immediately follows is not even remotely funny — it's straight out of a war film.
Some of those later episodes are not written by either Hader or Berg, and while it might be convenient to say they do comedy better, the finale is a testament to the fact they have a good grasp on what they want the show to be. By that finale, however, Barry is seemingly light years away from its opening three episodes. There's a palpable sense of Hader and Berg embracing what they were toying with and believing they have the skills to pull off this weird mix. The finale is wonderfully executed, both in its tense, unpredictable dramatic pacing and the sense that Barry wants to own what it's becoming, whether that negates the need for a second season or not.
Those are bold, unexpected decisions you definitely don't see coming at the start (or really in HBO's promotion), but they work so impressively. Here's hoping this series does make it to a second season, because after its first full season, Barry has become one of the bigger creative surprises on television.
Cast: Bill Hader, Stephen Root, Henry Winkler, Sarah Goldberg, Glenn Fleshler, Anthony Carrigan, Paula Newsome
Created and written by: Bill Hader, Alec Berg
Directed by: Bill Hader
Premieres: Sunday, March 25 (HBO)