Vince Gilligan, the creator of Breaking Bad, famously pitched his show as “a story about a man who transforms himself from Mr. Chips into Scarface.” Barry, HBO’s new half-hour semi-comedy, has the inverse premise: Can Scarface become Mr. Chips? Or more precisely, can a prolific hit man become an upstanding member of a mediocre acting class? The answer—and this shouldn’t be a spoiler—is no, but that doesn’t keep Barry from intriguingly updating the antihero as a terrifying beta male.
Bill Hader, who co-created the series with Alec Berg, stars as Barry Berkman, a former Marine–turned–depressed contract killer working out of Cleveland. A job brings Barry to a Los Angeles acting class, where pompous goof Gene Cousineau (a delightful Henry Winkler) presides over an eager-beaver bunch of wannabe thespians that includes Barry’s target. Sitting in on the class, Barry falls first for frantic, commanding Sally Reed (Sarah Goldberg); then, after being pulled onstage to deliver a few wooden lines, for the activity; and then, over friendly drinks, for the company. Barry’s an awful actor, but he loves the class anyway, and is desperate to explore all the feelings he barely knows he has.
Barry’s occupation and his hobby heat up simultaneously. The body count rises; he starts working on Macbeth. His handler, Fuches (Stephen Root), an old family friend, has hired Barry out to the Chechen mob, a criminal outfit played for laughs. Crime boss Goran Pazar (Glenn Fleshler) and his sidekick, the eyebrowless Noho Hank (a genuinely funny Anthony Carrigan), involve Barry in a series of bloody murders that attracts the attention of the police, and particularly the dry, appealing Detective Moss (Paula Newsome), who traces various leads back to Barry’s acting class. The more Barry wants out, the more he gets pulled back in, juggling stash-house raids and scene studies, committing multiple murders one minute, working through his own guilt by arguing about Lady Macbeth’s guilt the next.
Barry, a people-killing protagonist, is a throwback not to the distant past, but to just a few years ago, when the antihero was TV’s cutting-edge archetype. But Barry is also an of-the-moment leading man, which is to say, he’s actively difficult to like. Atlanta’s Earn Marks and Girls’ Hannah Horvath are objectively less evil, though purposefully less appealing than Walter White or Tony Soprano, horrible men whose charisma drew audiences to them anyway. Barry is akin to the first set of characters, even though he breaks the law like the second. Like Earn, Barry’s depressed, repressed, lethargic. He’s a uniquely passive gunslinger, a sad man with a self-serving interior justification that’s as dull as it is twisted: He’s a middle manager of violence, just doing what he’s told. Barry’s the unappealing, unambitious antihero, a villain who dreams of being a boring suburban dad.
Hader and Berg hated the idea of the cool hit man, and Barry is decidedly uncool. He’s awkward; he has no game. He has so little clue what to wear to a party, he just buys everything on the mannequin at J. Crew. He is very good at killing people but he’s not some kinetic action hero. The violence on the show isn’t thrilling; it’s brutish. He murders people while they’re sleeping, while they’re saying “You don’t have to do this,” while they’re sitting on the couch watching TV. Barry gets caught up with another Marine, a Vin Diesel look-alike named Taylor (Dale Pavinski), a muscle-bound dope with no conscience who loves the excitement and wants to high-five over murders. He’s got action hero energy, and it’s presented as exceptionally stupid.
Barry got enormous destructive powers, but no creative ones: He can’t make anything, even of himself. Not so for Sally. To borrow Emily Nussbaum’s taxonomy, Sally is a hummingbird, a class of female characters, who like Leslie Knope or Enlightened’s Amy Jellicoe are “idealistic feminine dreamers whose personalities are irritants.” All the digs that are only ever used to describe women—bossy, shrill, hysterical—apply to Sally, an intense, competitive, petty narcissist with lots of verve, passion, confidence, and genuine interest in acting. Sally’s a remix on the female “buzzkill” featured in antihero shows, a character like Breaking Bad’s Skyler White, who tried to restrain the antihero’s rampaging machismo and was despised by some members of the audience for it. Sally can be annoying, and she hates it when Barry is overly macho—she blows him off when he gets possessive and tells him she hates “toxic masculinity”—but Barry, unlike previous antiheroes, thrills to this. He adores her. He, too, begins to worry about his toxic masculinity. She, not Barry, is the one with ambition, dreams, drive, a plan. He gets the girl by getting in touch with his feelings, being supportive and generous and doting, letting her shine.
Barry is a bit betwixt and between as a viewing experience: too violent for people who don’t like violence, not energetic or dramatic enough for people who do. (And for people looking for a comedy: Well, it’s as sporadically amusing as any prestige comedy these days.) Over the course of the season, Barry amounts to something, locating a hit man’s shared humanity not in his competence, his guilt, or his remorse, but in his delusional belief that he’s a decent person. Like most people, Barry thinks he’s a good guy. He’s so regular, so searching, so lost, so desperate to find himself, so considerate of Sally and his classmates, so turned off by ultraviolence, so low-key, he almost convinces the audience he’s good too. But as the season progresses, he blows past any justifications of his behavior. Barry doesn’t want to hurt people, but he wants to keep himself from being hurt even more; you don’t have to be a hit man to have arranged your life, and to have had your life arranged, around this particular line of thinking. Barry just wants to be happy, but just because his idea of happiness is extremely banal—a wife, kids, a BBQ, a house with a number of bathrooms—doesn’t mean it’s not dangerous.