TV Review: ‘Barry’ Gives Bill Hader a Starring Vehicle

It’s always interesting to see what projects “Saturday Night Live” stars jump into after they leave the iconic show. Bill Hader has been a uniquely talented individual for years and may have been the most underrated part of his SNL cast for the majority of his run. Since leaving the show he’s been absolutely stellar with his career choices. “The Skeleton Twins” showcased his dramatic talent. “Trainwreck” proved he could be a rom-com lead and an even better friend to Lebron James. “Documentary Now!” has shown his ability to not only play wildly diverse characters but also get weird when necessary. With his new HBO series “Barry,” Hader is showing why he’s a generational talent.

Barry” follows a Veteran of the U.S. armed forces, that has since become a contract killer for various organizations. Barry (Hader) is unhappy in his life, bored and burnt out by the revolving door of people he’s had to kill. He’s not interested in doing the job anymore, and it’s making him a little sloppy in the process. To get him back on track, his handler Fuches (Stephen Root) sends him to Los Angeles to perform a hit for the Chechen mob. As he follows his mark, Barry unknowingly walks into an acting class taught by Cousineau (Henry Winkler) and attended by a struggling actress (Sara Goldberg) who instantly catches his eye. Barry is forced onstage (to perform a scene from “True Romance” with his mark) and is thrown into an existential crisis after he realizes he wants to be an actor.

The show goes to wild places in its first episode, but it is clear Hader has found something special here. Hader’s performance is incredibly subtle, but this works to highlight the insanity of what is going on around him. Hader co-created with 14-time Emmy nominee Alec Berg, and the two of them simply know how to add the little touches to the comedy. Over and over throughout the episode, there are combinations of visual and subtle humor that surpass many of the best shows on television. However, it’s also outwardly funny when it wants to be, including some of the funniest scenes of the year.

Several of those funny scenes belong to Winkler. For years, Winkler has only played idiots and incompetent workman. It’s frankly been a disappointing use of an actor responsible for one of the most iconic characters in TV history. However, “Barry” captures the charisma that made Winkler a star, easily showcasing his talent as an insane acting coach. It’s his best role in years, and the show welcomes him with open arms.

Goldberg also provides some really strong moments and shows many levels of her character in the process. She’s a neurotic actor memorizing profanity-laden lines when Barry first interrupts her. Then she suffers a break down on stage with Winkler’s pushing, resulting in a strong performance of her character. After the scene, she takes Barry out, where she becomes an irrationally overconfident actress. All this takes place in under ten minutes, which gives her a promising start to the show.

“Barry” also excels in the crafts, which helps elevate the story. The series brings Barry’s frustrations to life by making the life of a contract killer incredibly boring. Hader directs the episode and has an eye for how to frame the monotony of the world around him bland colors. Hader applies the limited color palette to every aspect of Barry’s life, including his job, video games, and apartment. However, after he discovers acting, the world figuratively and literally brightens around him. Add the tone shift to the incredible visual humor throughout the show and it’s clear the production team is an important part of making this show work.

“Barry” may sound like a ridiculous premise on its face. Frankly, it is. Yet the combination of actors and actresses assembled here works incredibly well. However, without Hader leading the way, the rest of the show likely would not matter. Hader is easily turning in the best performance of a career full of amazing work. He’s the captain helming the ship, and if the first episode is any indication, this is going to be some of the very best TV can offer in 2018.

What do you think? Does “Barry” work as a starring vehicle for Hader? Is this an Emmy contender? Let us know in the comments below!

“Barry” airs on Sunday Nights on HBO after “Silicon Valley.” 

GRADE: (★★★)