Brow Beat

Barry’s Class Act

The HBO series’ hit-man-goes-to-acting-school conceit gives way to a subtle satire on the lust for fame.

Bill Hader and Henry Winkler in Barry.
Bill Hader and Henry Winkler in Barry.
Jordin Althaus/HBO

On its surface, Barry, the new half-hour comedy from Bill Hader and Alec Berg about a depressed hit man who joins a Los Angeles acting class, seems like it’s based in an obvious idea. You can almost hear the pitch—it’s Grosse Pointe Blank meets Waiting for Guffman—and the high-fives that followed it. But six episodes into its eight-episode first season, it’s become clear that Barry is a show of surprising depth and subtlety, equally adept at broad humor about Bitmoji-loving gangsters and deadpan jokes about the Gersh Agency. In particular, its depiction of the classes its titular contract killer takes feels mortifyingly familiar, a specific and ever-so-slightly exaggerated version of the real, desperate thing.

For anyone who’s taken an acting class or two, Barry will provide a shock of recognition. It’s all here: the flop sweat, aspiring professionals mouthing received wisdom about the Craft, the closet case who uses acting to negotiate his fraught identity, and the cultlike attachment of the students to their verbally abusive teacher. Bill Hader’s Barry finds himself in this world by accident after following a man he’s supposed to kill. It’s hard to imagine anyone less well suited to acting class than a taciturn and traumatized combat veteran who murders people for money and has no friends. Yet he is seduced by the encouragement he finds there and is immediately drawn both to Sally (Sarah Goldberg), the class’ star student, and to Gene Cousineau, the charismatic, paternalistic acting teacher whose approval all the students seek. As magnificently rendered by Henry Winkler, Gene is a money-grubbing has-been, filled with vaguely impressive stories about midlevel actors—Patrick Swayze, he says, was “a true friend, until we had a falling out and he had it written into his will that I was barred from his funeral”—whose acting life now consists of auditioning for anonymous walk-on roles. Where most acting textbooks have grandiose titles like An Actor Prepares or Respect for Acting, Cousineau’s is called Hit Your Mark and Say Your Lines, betraying the hackiness of his approach. What Cousineau promises his students isn’t a chance to re-create truth in front of an audience but rather a shot at fame.

In discussing the series finale of The Larry Sanders Show, another half-hour showbiz comedy on HBO, Garry Shandling told the New York Times, “Everybody wants to be famous. They think being famous will change their life. I’m here to tell them it doesn’t.” It’s safe to say that the characters in Barry never watched Larry Sanders—or if they did, they didn’t pay attention. Fame is the currency of Cousineau’s world, and movies and television the way to get it. One of the show’s best running gags is that the students only perform scenes from film adaptations of plays. “Have you seen Doubt?” Sally asks. “It’s this movie where Meryl Streep is a nun and she makes Philip Seymour Hoffman who’s a priest admit that he’s been molesting little boys. It’s amazing.” (Doubt, for most people who care about such things, is a Pulitzer Prize–winning play starring Cherry Jones where the priest’s guilt is never confirmed.) They hold a memorial for a dead classmate in hopes of being seen by his manager. A party thrown by D’Arcy Carden’s Natalie revolves around a friend who has become fame adjacent by doing the motion capture for a live-action Pinocchio. He isn’t even sure he’s in the credits for the film, but in this world of perpetual strivers, it’s enough to make him a star.

Gene’s relationship to his students is almost purely vampiric. They reserve him the best parking spot, give him standing ovations to start each class, and pay him what, given his expensive car and well-appointed home, must be exorbitant sums of money. But there is nothing unique, or even particularly useful, about his approach. He never discusses beat changes or objectives or tactics, three of the basic building blocks of most American schools of acting. It’s all bromides and watered down method-esque emotional recall laced with showbiz anecdotes and mirroring exercises that they could get anywhere else, and probably for less money.

Through Gene, Barry headshots many of our pieties surrounding the supposed wisdom contained in art in general and acting in particular. Each episode is titled after a different acting class cliché, with each going horribly awry. Barry’s version of “committing to your choices” when it comes to Sally looks a lot like stalking, and one character’s attempt to “make the unsafe choice” gets many people killed.

Barry also nails the ersatz intimacy of bad actors, the way that show folk can attach to one another like lampreys on a basking shark as a way of establishing the connection necessary to work together. It’s this instant familiarity that seduces Barry and draws him into the class. Barry is a character adrift, staring with equal longing and terror at the world around him. He’s a lone gunman, whose closest thing to a friend is Fuches (Stephen Root), his manipulative handler. Fuches has kept Barry so isolated he even lacks a Facebook page. Human connections make killing harder, and getting caught easier, but the easy-going insta-friendship of actors gives Barry exactly what he needs, and their utter narcissism keeps them from figuring out what he does for a living. Their intimacy is performative, the openness of someone staring in front of a mirror hoping to admire his own reflection. In the season finale, Sally prefaces a dark secret from her past by telling Barry she’s never told it to anyone, only to list the four classmates (and Gene, of course) whom she’s told.

Sally is Barry’s best, and most complicated, character, a monster of need whose hunger for fame undermines her considerable talents. She pays lip service to ensemble acting, yet will shove anyone out of the way who’s occupying center stage. At her lowest moment, she asks Barry for reassurance. But she does not want him to tell her she’s a good person. Or even a good actor. Instead, she asks him, “Do you think I’m going to be a star?” When he answers yes, she sleeps with him.

Barry is unable to process his encounter with Sally, or to understand why the others in the acting class are so friendly with him, because he is incapable of perceiving subtext. This obliviousness to anything below the surface also makes him a bad actor and blinds him to the obvious truth about Fuches. In Barry’s funniest moment, he makes a bungled attempt to perform Alec Baldwin’s bravura “coffee is for closers only” scene in Glengarry Glen Ross. (The scene, of course, is only in the film version.) Unable to perceive the menace underneath Mamet’s management-speak, Barry mistakes it for an earnest pep talk. “Second place is a set of steak knives!” he sunnily intones, as Gene looks on in horror.

The worlds of class and crime finally combine in this week’s episode, “Listen With Your Ears, React With Your Face,” an extended riff on the producer-director-actor relationship. A former member of Barry’s military unit, the bloodthirsty and obviously psychotic Taylor (Dale Pavinski), has coerced him into attacking the stronghold of a Bolivian drug kingpin. As they plan their approach, Taylor keeps making increasingly ill-advised suggestions like a bad actor angling for a more exciting role. Fuches is the producer, trying to get Barry to fire (and murder) Taylor before the production goes awry. As the director of the hit, Barry must flatter, cajole, and give notes to Taylor while mollifying Fuches. None of it works out well.

Yet somehow Barry avoids being mean-spirited. In its second half, Barry’s circle of empathy turns out to be larger than it originally seemed, even as the story gets darker and darker. And by the end of the season, all those acting classes pay off, albeit in unexpected ways. A listening exercise where he and Sally must repeat “I love you” back and forth while using tone to create meaning unlocks something in him. In the final two episodes, Barry unwittingly stumbles onto the secret of emotional recall, the practice of harnessing memories to create emotions onstage. After all, the clichés in acting are in part clichés because committing to your choices (particularly the dangerous ones!) and learning how to use your life experiences and how to listen and react to other people are all extremely useful under the right circumstances.

It’s not acting (or actors) per se that Barry lampoons. The art of acting is incredibly difficult, making a professional go at it even harder. Unlike Waiting for Guffman, which approaches its characters with relentless contempt for the crime of wanting to make (bad) art, Barry wryly mocks its characters for wanting to be famous. These are not the same things. There’s nothing wrong with being untalented and wanting to make art. Most people who want to make art are untalented, and most art is bad, but that doesn’t mean the making of it is worthless, or a joke. In a world increasingly defined by commerce, where worth and value are confused, making something for its own sake, or for your community, has incredible meaning and beauty. Being famous, on the other hand, is a ridiculous thing to want. Fame is where the self gets commoditized, where art and commerce get mistaken for one another. It isn’t something a normal, well-adjusted human should want.

None of the humans in Barry are normal or well-adjusted. What boring television that would make! Instead they muddle through, dedicated to that very American idea of more. Sally wants more roles, more fame, more anonymous love from the world around her. Gene wants more romance, Barry more connection, Fuches more money, the gangsters more territory. What unites every scene in the show is this hunger, and for Cousineau’s students, the hunger runs so deep they’ve mistaken crumbs for a feast. For Barry, fame, like the acting class itself, is a way for him to get acceptance. It’s a path to an instant redemption that requires no penance. Barry wants to reinvent himself, like a mythic ingénue stepping off a bus into a celluloid Los Angeles to find a new beginning. Unfortunately for him, he’s in the wrong genre. In an American crime show, reinvention only buys you so much time. The devil will always get his due.