The first murder in Barry happens offscreen. Barry (Bill Hader) walks robotically out of a hotel bathroom toward a bed where—the camera pans to reveal—a man has been shot in the head. Barry removes the silencer from a revolver and grimaces, slightly, as if he has indigestion. He pats himself down to check he hasn’t forgotten anything, looks at his watch, and leaves the room.
The premise of Bill Hader and Alec Berg’s new eight-part HBO comedy is that Barry is an assassin, but a reluctant one. Essentially gentle and conflict-averse deep down, he’s eager to hang up his weapons and try something new. As he explains to an acting coach, Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler), he’s a former Marine who came back from Afghanistan with crippling depression and no direction, until a friend of his dad’s back in the midwest pointed out the one job his particular set of skills made him suitable for. But, Barry says, forlornly, “I know there’s more to me than that.”
“What’s that from?” Cousineau replies, assuming Barry’s delivering a monologue from a movie instead of his life story. “The story’s nonsense, but there’s something to work with.”
And that, in a nutshell, is Barry, which takes the tired trope of hit-man-with-a-heart and turns it into something darker, rawer, and intermittently heartbreaking. It does this while remaining a comedy, or at least more structurally a comedy than many of the half-hour dramas that awkwardly bulk up the category. In the first episode, Barry is sent to Los Angeles to take out an actor, Ryan, who’s having an affair with a Chechen gangster’s wife. This order contradicts Barry’s understanding that his job is morally defensible because he only kills bad guys. But he follows Ryan to his acting class and is unexpectedly drawn to the group of people he finds there. They’re kind to him. They welcome him into their troupe, and heap lavish praise on his “generous” nonperformance. But most of all, Barry—whose emotions seem to have been buried somewhere so deep that James Cameron in a submersible couldn’t find them—is enthralled by the process of acting itself. He watches, rapt, as Sally (Sarah Goldberg) tries to tap into genuine feelings of rage and pain to perform a scene.
It’s hard to imagine how Barry would work without Hader, whose performance is extraordinary. In moments when Barry’s doing his job, he’s a shuffling automaton, devoid of charisma, inwardly wincing with every shot he fires off. He can be frightening, but only because he’s so efficient at what he does—the show defiantly resists glamorizing any part of the violence it portrays. But in the scenes where Barry attends acting class, Hader’s elasticized face conveys someone having a profound awakening. Barry’s eyes become animated. His jaw relaxes. You root for him more fiercely than you’ve ever rooted for a difficult TV antihero, because what he wants is so representative of all anybody wants, in the end. The question the show asks is, Can you move on from murder?
The field of comedies about killing people is surprisingly rich right now. Netflix and Channel 4’s recent series The End of the F***ing World presented a love story between a disaffected teenager and the wannabe psychopath intent on murdering her that turned out to be unexpectedly charming in the end. Also on Netflix, the second season of Santa Clarita Diet arrives on Friday, starring Drew Barrymore as Sheila, one half of a suburban husband-and-wife realtor team who’s lamentably undead. The first 10 episodes of that show used Sheila’s newfound zombie state as an allegory for the challenges marriages face in midlife, when identities shift and people seek out ways to invigorate their lives. Santa Clarita Diet, in madcap and extremely gruesome fashion, poked at the many layers contained in “till death do us part.”
The second season, still overseen by the show’s creator, Victor Fresco (Better Off Ted), could have gone in any number of directions. It could have dealt with Sheila’s worsening condition, in which her extremities were starting to decay and fall off, and her bloodlust was peaking. It could have leaned fully in to the zombie-comedy template, bringing an apocalypse of the undead upon Los Angeles County. Instead, it remains as static and unyielding as it’s possible for a 10-episode comedy series to be. It was always a comedy with a single punchline, as Matt Zoller Seitz wrote in Vulture last year: Sheila, a sweet, goofy suburban mom, suddenly enjoys killing people and eating them. But in its sophomore season, the cracks in such a narrow premise are starting to show. Santa Clarita Diet has accomplished actors and great one-liners but its stakes are stuck at sea level. Even when it fleetingly considers the morality of murder, the series is prone to take the easiest path possible and then wrap it up in a gag about undesirable body parts (Sheila loves fingers but compares thumbs to “the ends of bread”).
That’s not to say simple comedies can’t be rewarding, or that every new series has to commit to moral philosophizing as earnestly as The Good Place. But it’s hard to reconcile such a provocative premise and such a glib tone. Any tenuous objections to murdering people for food that Sheila and her husband, Joel (Timothy Olyphant), might have are swiftly dispelled when the pair discover a Nazi softball team in Santa Clarita. Fresco seems far more interested in the small-scale moments in middle-class life (Joel spends three episodes talking about a bookshelf he wants to build out of cherry wood) than in the life-or-death situation he’s gotten his characters into.
Nailing the tone of jokes about murder can be troublesome even for shows with a less overtly comedic structure. In its most recent season, Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black struggled to marry its lighthearted homage to classic horror with storylines about torture and brutal assault. Santa Clarita Diet sets up joke after joke about pain, death, and dismemberment but it doesn’t let you feel any of it.
Barry, by contrast, is so rooted in its hero’s emotional torpor that when the first episode segues into a zany scene with two Chechen gangsters, it’s jarring. The jokes come hard and fast (all the scenes in Barry’s L.A. theater class are taken from movie adaptations of plays, and Kaley Cuoco is cited alongside Meryl Streep as the acting world’s sine qua non), but they’re not the point. “These feelings that you’re having right now, these are the paints in your acting toolbox,” Sally tells Barry. The crux of the show is that a man accustomed to nothing but violence is thrown off course by other emotions. Not for nothing does Barry throw around, in later episodes, the concept of “toxic masculinity.”
In The End of the F***ing World, James (Alex Lawther) has a similar revelation. He begins the series as a dead-eyed oddball and occasional animal torturer. At the age of 9, he explains, he put his hand in a deep-fat fryer because “I wanted to make myself feel something.” His partnership with Alyssa (Jessica Barden) after the pair runs away from home helps him do exactly that, and it’s as redemptive for James as it is terrifying. Still, the show doesn’t give him an easy way out.
Over the course of eight episodes, Barry pays more heed still to the question of consequences. “When you decided to do this for a living, you closed the door on being able to do anything else,” Barry’s hitman mentor and employer, Fuches (Stephen Root), tells him. Just because Barry wants to change doesn’t mean the world will let him. And with that, Barry does the most pivotal thing a comedy series in this genre can do: It takes murder seriously.