The tricky balance between clever meta comedy and affecting human drama “Barry” pulls off so beautifully is embodied by a character called NoHo Hank. Played with a charming verve by Anthony Carrigan (“Gotham”), NoHo Hank is a bald, tattooed member of the Chechen mob, but he likes making fancy snacks for his friends, describes himself as a “gearhead,” and spices up his texts with comical bitmojis.
NoHo Hank is kind of like a living bitmoji: He could be immensely creepy if he leaned into his intimidating features — after all, Hank doesn’t look all that different from Carrigan’s demented Victor Zsasz — but he’s more of a people pleaser… who just happens to be in an industry that actually kills people instead of killing them with laughter. He’s not his job, but his job is a part of him. That’s a common theme throughout a show about a man you want to believe is kind, funny, and normal, but who does things few of us can imagine.
Genuinely evoking both of those impulses isn’t easy, no matter how effortlessly Carrigan appears to pull it off, and the same can be said for the HBO comedy surrounding him. “Barry” not only shifts from comedy to drama convincingly and at the drop of a hat, but it dispenses various shades of each so that all eight episodes hold together as a grounded, honest story with a long road ahead. Bill Hader and Alec Berg’s series is highly entertaining and acutely heartbreaking, and that’s pretty damn special.
A black comedy with more broad humor than the genre can typically sustain, “Barry” opens on a dead guy in a hotel room. His killer emerges from the bathroom, packs up his stuff, and walks out of the room. This is Barry Berkman, a former military man who’s now self-employed as a professional assassin. Along with his handler Fuchs (Stephen Root), Barry travels around the country taking care of bad men — or, at least, men he’s told are bad.
But Barry isn’t living the glamorous lifestyle often seen in films like “John Wick.” His apartment is an unkempt dump one step up from a dorm room, not a private mansion in upstate New York. He doesn’t have a dog or a girlfriend. He doesn’t even have an ex-wife. He’s just a guy doing his job, bored into listlessness and dulled to the trauma of his work.
Well, he’s about to come alive. During the aforementioned trip to L.A. where Barry meets NoHo Hank and his boss, Goran (“True Detective’s” Glenn Fleshler), he follows his mark into his acting studio and suddenly finds himself thrust onto the stage. After a disastrous start, he’s encouraged to keep at it by the theatre troupe’s positive-minded members.
As strange as it may seem for an ex-marine to be drawn to costumed script readings, it’s easy to see some of the attraction for Barry: The acting world — especially the one found in North Hollywood communities — is very different from his old life. He’s got friends who he can work with and creative outlets to explore. He’s being challenged and supported instead of taken for granted and left alone. But “Barry” goes beyond the superficial conveniences of Berkman’s new hobby to explore how acting can lead to empathy and a better understanding of our own emotions. Barry doesn’t want to be famous; fame could get him killed. He’s earnestly engaging with the practice, and in doing so, he taps into long-dormant feelings that he can explore on stage.
Watching Hader wake Barry up proves to be one of the show’s great joys. The “SNL” star has always been an underrated character actor. Sure, he could disappear into goofballs like Stefon and Herb Welch, but look at his feature film resume in everything from “The Skeleton Twins” and “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” to “Trainwreck” and “Superbad”: He’s clearly capable of building and sustaining layers for longer than a sketch.
Here, he’s tasked with playing a bad actor (always hard) who has to explore loads of internal conflict without being able to talk about it. Hader conveys so much with his eyes, intonation, and calculated movements. A lot of his choices are built into the scripts, but that doesn’t make them any less of a challenge to portray. For instance, Barry performs the iconic “coffee’s for closers” scene from “Glengarry Glen Ross” as though he’s earnestly encouraging his employees to do well. How Hader tosses aside “third place is you’re fired” is comic gold, but the point of the scene is for Barry’s acting teacher, Gene (Henry Winkler), to call out his pupil’s personal foibles. “You are deferential to every character in a scene, except for yours,” Gene says, and Barry listens. He’s discovering himself, and how he acts in class impacts how he acts in life. By the time the later episodes hit and Barry is deep in a moral crisis, Hader has more than earned those big outbursts of exploding pain — and he nails those moments, too.
There may not always be an even balance of jokes and drama (though blending the two can prove really strong), and there are times when “Barry” can play it a tad too safe. Events get steadily more serious as the eight-episode season continues, but the show never strays from its down-to-earth storytelling. If it’s funny because it’s true (or feels true, in this case), then that same principle works for the darker, laugh-less moments. The show may build from common ideas — a remorseful hitman and a wannabe Hollywood actor — but the specificity, as well as the willingness to realistically explore both journeys, makes the whole thing feel fresh. In an honest comedy, things can get real sometimes. So it’s a good thing “Barry” knows how to handle both.
“Barry” premieres Sunday, March 25 at 10:30 p.m. on HBO.