Essays · TV

The Sweet, Refreshing Optimism of ‘Barry’

It’s easy to love Bill Hader’s killer with a dream.
Barry Bill Hader
By  · Published on March 28th, 2018

On March 25’th HBO aired the first episode of Barry, Bill Hader’s new comedy about a hitman who wants to be an actor. I’ve seen the first 4 episodes, and I’m completely hooked.

In the pilot, Bill Hader’s Barry Berkman follows his latest hit to an acting class (taught by a fabulous Henry Winkler). He’s inadvertently swept onstage into a scene, and he gets bitten by the acting bug. Hilarity ensues.

Barry is a comedy, no question. There’s a backdrop of death, of course — Barry is a professional killer — but the mood is largely light. And this is surprising, as it’s ostensibly a show about a man wrestling his life back from depression.

There’s no shortage of stories about characters adrift in their own lives, and comedy has become one of the genre’s finest vehicles. Shows like Bojack Horseman and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend are both stellar examples. But while they use comedy to deliver pitch black themes, Barry draws its humor from a completely different realm: unfettered optimism.

It’s not by chance that this show takes place in the world of aspiring actors — every character is imbued with a desperate idealism and fiercely naive overconfidence. When you’re unknown in Hollywood, it’s the only way to survive.

Barry quickly gets caught up in that idealism. After years of living alone and killing for hire, he’s overwhelmed by the friendliness and openness of his new acting classmates. Does Barry necessarily want to be an actor, or is he just responding to the first warmth of human kindness he’s felt in a long time? Potato, potahto.

Barry latches onto the blind optimism around him and runs with it. Just like his new friends insist that they’re going to make it as actors, he insists that he’s going to build a new life for himself. For them, the danger is facing the odds of making it in Hollywood. For him, it’s the Chechen mobsters who are trying to kill him. But for all of them, it’s also the monotony of the life they’re trying to leave behind.

And it’s clear which one scares Barry more.

Barry Bill Hader Henry Winkler

Since Barry’s so casual about blowing off his job as a hitman, he seems to have no sense of proportion. But that’s just what you need when you’re trying to make it in the movies. Especially when you’re Barry.

Because Barry is not a good actor.

Not at all. This is evident when he’s on stage, and when he tries to lie. In a sea of uninspiring performers, he’s by far the hardest to watch. But he holds onto his dream, and he puts himself in a bizarre amount of danger to keep it. This makes for a juxtaposition that’s silly, sure, but also surprisingly moving and inspiring.

And a lot of the show’s humor comes from that moving and inspiring place. There are legitimate laughs to be found in the Chechen mob and the local police force — these straightforwardly funny interludes cement the show’s identity as a comedy. But the most profound humor comes from Barry.

Barry isn’t a funny character. As a depressed murderer, he’s the intersection of a very serious Venn diagram. But Bill Hader is extremely funny. And he plays a fish out of water straight man, with a dream and some of the widest eyes I’ve ever seen, with real hilarity.

Barry’s innocence is, at the end of the day, what drives the show. He’s socially inept, he’s a terrible actor, and he has no problem with stabbing a guy in the nuts. But he wants to be happy, and he thinks he’s figured out how to do it. That’s an enviable position to be in. You can’t help but laugh at Barry, but you also can’t help but wish you had his clarity.

I’m rooting for him all the way.

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Liz Baessler is a frequent contributor and infrequent columnist at Film School Rejects. She has an MA in English and a lot of time on her hands. (She/Her)