There’s a certain frenetic rhythm we expect when crime and comedy collide. A normal person, placed in an abnormal situation that may or may not be of their own making, works themselves into such a state of anxiety and discomfort that the viewer can’t help but laugh. That fish-out-of-water joke is at the heart of the more humorous elements of Breaking Bad, one of 21st century television’s best comedies as well as greatest dramas. It’s the animating force behind Good Girls, the new NBC dramedy that tracks a housewife, a waitress, and a single mom’s descent into the criminal underworld. It’s the set-up of studio films like Rough Night and Game Night, which see the likes of Scarlett Johansson and Jason Bateman display increasingly absurd levels of agita.
It takes only one scene of Barry to make clear that “violence + hapless everyman = laughs” is not a formula this show intends to follow. Co-created by and starring Bill Hader as the titular hitman-turned-aspiring-actor, the HBO dramedy begins in total silence. The setting is an anonymous hotel room in Rochester; a bloody corpse lies nonchalantly in the foreground. Barry unscrews his silencer, pockets his gun, and gets out. The only note of comedy arrives just before Barry leaves: He pats his pockets like a suburban dad who’s just realized he’s forgotten his keys, makes a quizzical expression, and shrugs. It’s funny because of the context — an utterly banal gesture, performed at a time that should be anything but banal.
Barry is a former Marine who’s fallen into killing for hire, at the behest of his handler and family friend Fuches (Stephen Root), as a way out of his likely PTSD-related depression. “He gave me a purpose,” Barry eventually explains. “He told me that what I was good at over there could be useful here.” And Barry is good at what he does: reflexively, terrifyingly good. He’s learned to process what might otherwise be a shock as a fact of everyday life.
Eventually, Barry does put high-strung people in close proximity to a violent offense. Their angst don’t stem from any wrongdoing, though; they’re just insecure actors. In Los Angeles to carry out a job for the Chechen mafia, Barry follows his mark — an aspiring actor and personal trainer prone to shtupping clients without Googling which crime syndicates their husbands might be a part of — to a cult-like acting class shepherded by Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler). Cousineau’s charges don’t seem to mind that he demands payment in cash up front and uses private conversations to bully them into tearing up mid-monologue, because he validates the idea that they have an art to suffer for. Soon enough, it’s a delusion Barry shares.
In an interview with GQ, Hader outlined the philosophy he, co-creator Alec Berg (of Seinfeld and, lately, Silicon Valley), and the rest of the writers took toward Barry’s dual lives: “The scenes when Barry is in hitman mode are ‘high stakes, no drama,’ and the scenes when he’s with his acting class are ‘high drama, no stakes.’” Though the members of Barry’s actorly cohort are engaged in relatively low-risk work, they’re more worked up about the minutiae of a monologue than Barry ever gets about taking out a gangster. It’s these strivers who provide the nervous energy the viewer’s likely expecting from Barry’s covert activities, or even his attempts to hide them from his new colleagues. Barry already has a well-practiced cover story in place (he’s just an auto parts salesman, new to town from Cleveland), and doesn’t break a sweat when he’s asked to provide one — the first of many times Barry fast-forwards past a problem that would take up an entire episode of a different, more conventional show. Meanwhile, self-absorbed love interest Sally (Sarah Goldberg) nearly implodes when Barry accidentally interrupts her rehearsal for Julianne Moore’s Magnolia freakout. Barry’s comedy lives in its contrasts, not its crises.
As a person who’s essentially allergic to vicarious embarrassment, Barry’s surprisingly droll sensibility comes as something of a relief. But Barry’s disarming tone also provides an unexpected showcase for Hader as an actor. In his time at Saturday Night Live, Hader could certainly blend in when he needed to, but built his reputation on characters who required going big. Stefon, Herb Welch, and Vinny Vedecci each call for a superhuman level of commitment on the part of their performer. Barry, too, is a tricky part, albeit in a way that calls much less attention to itself. Barry’s post-combat depression manifests in an aura that’s more resigned, even exasperated, than openly despairing. There’s also a childlike naiveté to Barry, exemplified by his perhaps-too-trusting relationship with his crime mentor; at one point he sincerely asks Fuches if he can do “night hits” while acting during the day. There’s a part of Fuches that seems to genuinely care for Barry, but another that’s clearly manipulating him without regard for how their livelihood is eating away at Barry’s soul.
The 2014 Sundance indie The Skeleton Twins, in which Hader and his former SNL co-star Kristen Wiig play estranged siblings, already demonstrated Hader’s abilities as a dramatic actor. But part of what makes the Barry role so effective is how it allows Hader to drift freely between Barry’s goofier moments and its dead-serious ones. The same passivity that allows Fuches to pressure Barry into all those murders also makes Barry a near-perfect straight man for the antics around him: the egomaniac actors on one side of his split existence, the hysterically inept Chechens on the other. (Sometimes, there’s an alarming amount of overlap between the two.) For a starring vehicle co-created and, in a fulfillment of Hader’s original show business dreams, often directed by its lead, this makes Barry remarkably generous in terms of sharing the comedic load. When Bill Hader is being Bill Hader, Barry gets to be funny, too — just in a more discreet way than viewers might have expected. The laugh is in the widening of Hader’s eyes during a reaction shot, or the ineptitude of his acting-within-acting. No over-the-top accent necessary.
Though Barry is assembled atop a foundation of clichés, from the show business satire to the action comedy, it’s a subtly subversive show, reversing audiences’ expectations for Hader’s post-SNL career and his chosen genre alike. By diffusing the tension around Barry’s illicit occupation, at least to start, Barry clears the space to explore the more existential questions the life of a veteran-turned-hitman brings up. What is a Marine Corps alum supposed to do when ejected back into a civilian world they haven’t been prepared for? Does killing make you irredeemable? Can salvation be found in a San Fernando Valley parking lot?
When Barry’s mission finally starts to go sideways, it’s not his fault. The Chechens, having decided that Barry can’t be trusted to finish the job, decide to do it themselves, and take out Barry as a bonus. When a muscle-bound Eastern European starts to angle a semi-automatic in his direction, Barry isn’t fazed. He doesn’t start to panic. Instead he says, calmly but firmly, “Don’t point that gun at me.” The Chechen ignores him, and in fifteen seconds, Barry has eliminated a car full of adversaries and abandoned the scene of the crime. The shootout is the domino that sets in motion the rest of the season, and yet it’s announced with little fanfare and responded to with eerie stoicism. In Los Angeles, the little things feel life-or-death, while the big picture might as well not exist. Barry feels right at home.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.