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Barry review: HBO’s crime-comedy is one of the best new shows of 2018

Barry review: Star Bill Hader has created on of his all-time great characters in HBO’s fabulous new show, one of the best of 2018 so far.

tv Updated: May 21, 2018 14:29 IST
Rohan Naahar
Rohan Naahar
Hindustan Times
Barry,Barry Review,Barry HBO
Bill Hader has written, directed, starred and created HBO’s Barry.

Barry
Cast - Bill Hader, Stephen Root, Henry Winkler, Sarah Goldberg
Rating - 4.5/5

PTSD is a delicate condition to portray on screen. The tendency is to take the safest route, the path of least resistance, and therefore, the least controversial. Which is why when we think of PTSD in movies and TV, the first image that pops into our head is that of a shell-shocked soldier, waking up with a jolt in the middle of the night, the moonlight sneaking in from the windows, illuminating every droplet of sweat on his face. We see flashbacks of a battlefield, dismembered limbs scattered about, dying men rasping through their last breath to give final messages for their wives - ‘Tell my wife I love her! Promise me!’

We’ve arrived at a point where scenes such as this could be plucked out of context and pass just as easily for a bit of Oscar bait or an over-the-top sketch on Saturday Night Live.

And SNL is a big influence on Barry, the new show by one of its most talented former players, Bill Hader. It wouldn’t be surprising if the idea for Barry, the character, had originated on SNL - one of the several rejected pitches Hader must have made during his eight-year tenure on the show.

Barry is an ex-marine who’s going through a bit of an existential crisis.

Barry is an ex-marine, riddled with PTSD, who decides to utilise his particular set of skills by becoming a hitman. He is lonely and disillusioned. He makes good money but doesn’t know what to do with it. His only friend is his handler, Monroe Fuches, a middle-aged midwesterner played by Stephen Root. And even that relationship is mildly annoying to him.

A new job sends him - begrudgingly - to Los Angeles, where he must take out a young man who performs with the local theatre troupe. Barry infiltrates the troupe, operated by the gloriously named Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler) and learns that acting - even though he’s terrible at it - is his true calling in life. So he puts in a call to Fuches, and pulls that old chestnut - ‘I want out of this life’. But the past has a way of sneaking up on you, Barry learns, especially when you’re trying to outrun it. Luckily, he has a gun.

Barry infiltrates a theatre troupe.

Over its eight episode first season - a second was greenlit almost immediately after the premiere - Barry walks a tightrope tonally. It’s part drama, part satire and part dark comedy. And it juggles genres just as deftly as it switches tones - Barry goes from being a hitman comedy to a farce and from farce to love story, often in the same scene. There are Russian gangsters, Bolivian gangsters and cops trapped in a middle age crisis. There are jealous actresses and trigger happy soldiers. And they all come together because of Barry and his newfound passion in life.

I say this with some disbelief, but after a decade of watching every hitman film (including two actual Hitman films), every Irish dark comedy, and everything set within a 100-mile radius of Belgium, I think Barry might be the closest relative I’ve found to In Bruges - one of my favourite films ever.

Henry Winkler stars as acting coach, Gene Cousineau.

It is also an odd mashup of movies such as John Cusack’s cult hit Grosse Pointe Blank and something Quentin Tarantino would have made. It’s certainly cast like a Tarantino movie - precise and inspired. Not a single actor feels out of place, which is a rather important requirement for a show that spends a significant amount of time prancing about on stage, in one of the hundreds of those LA acting schools that promise their students a future in which they’d be hobnobbing with Brad Pitt and Will Smith.

But two performances stand out - Winkler’s and Hader’s. Henry Winkler isn’t a stranger to characters such as this - Gene Cousineau is like an inbred lovechild of his Barry Zuckerkorn from Arrested Development and Dr Saperstein from Parks & Recreation, good natured and goofy, naturally charming but slightly numbskulled.

Bill Hader has added another all-time great character to his resume.

But it’s Hader’s central performance that’s more stunning than anything else - he plays Barry with just the right amount of male naïveté so as not to fall into the same existential traps of previous hitman films, or PTSD performances for that matter. There is an innocent confusion to Barry, he just can’t seem to grasp civilian life - especially after grappling with life and death decisions on a daily basis. He’s forgotten what genuine emotion feels like, and tragically misreads signals from a girl in his acting class like some sort of murderous Pee Wee Herman/Mr Bean person.

And if her remarkable performance wasn’t enough, in a sort of mirror to what Donald Glover is doing over at Atlanta, Hader also wrote and directed several episodes. A couple of the best ones, however, were helmed by Hiro Murai - Glover’s directing partner on Atlanta, and the unheralded genius behind his This is America video.

Barry is one of the finest new comedy series of the year, and along with Crashing, Veep, High Maintenance and Silicon Valley, continues HBO’s stronghold on the half-hour format, despite Netflix and other streaming services’ barrage of content. It’s available on Hotstar, so, like, what are you waiting for?

Watch the Barry trailer here

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The author tweets @RohanNaahar

First Published: May 21, 2018 12:27 IST