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.