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Bill Hader takes a shot at being a hitman in HBO's Barry


Bill Hader is guns up as an insular hit man in Barry HBO photo

Premiering: Sunday, March 25th at 9:30 p.m. (central) on HBO
Starring: Bill Hader, Sarah Goldberg, Henry Winkler, Stephen Root, Paula Newsome, Anthony Carrigan, Glenn Fleshler, John Pirruccello
Produced by: Alec Berg, Bill Hader

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Lest we entirely forget, Bill Hader is the guy who fired cat-powered laser guns with partner Andy Samberg in a fairly famous series of Saturday Night Live digital shorts.

Now he’s blazing away with pistols and automatic weaponry as a former Marine who returns from Afghanistan to become a lonely but lethal hit man. HBO’s Barry is serio-comic in tone. Still, Hader’s title character also piles up a fairly sizable body count during the eight-episode Season One, all of which was made available for review.

Will you buy him in this role, in addition to Henry Winkler as a hot-tempered acting coach? Skepticism is understandable, but both Hader and Winkler manage to make the sale while much of the comedy in these half-hour episodes is provided by a pair of Chechen mobsters who nonetheless are not to be taken lightly. Barry isn’t always completely on target. There are more than enough nifty plot turns and deftly played scenes, though, to keep the series steadily on its feet before a season-ending cliffhanger leaves one very much wanting more.

Barry Berkman (Hader) is first seen at the scene of his latest hit, with a shot-through-the-forehead corpse reposed in bed. He then returns to Cleveland, awaiting another assignment from a handler named Fuches (Stephen Root) while otherwise living drearily by himself.

It turns out his next stop is Hollywood, where Chechen mob king Goran Pazar (Glenn Fleshler) wants Barry to knock off an aspiring actor who’s been sleeping with his wife. While scoping out his would-be victim, Barry peeps in on an acting class run by Gene Cousineau (Winkler), author of Hit Your Mark and Say Your Lines. He’s strictly cash upfront, and one of his other students is Sally Reed (Sarah Goldberg), with whom Barry is quickly smitten.

What if Barry enrolled in the class as a sidelight to his regular job? Fuches is very much against this because it’s not anonymous enough. He instead suggests painting, rationalizing that “Hitler painted. John Wayne Gacy painted. It’s a good, solid hobby.”

The sheer absurdity and audacity of that line, perfectly delivered by the underrated Root, is part of what makes Barry work. The Sopranos and various adaptations of Elmore Leonard’s crime novels likewise have some cockeyed moments amid the carnage. Barry has a tougher tightrope to walk because it also has to sell Hader, let alone Henry “The Fonz” Winkler, in roles that on paper seem unsuited to them. Ask Adam Sandler how difficult this can be.

On the mob side, the surly Pazar’s sidekick is Noho Hank (Anthony Carrigan), whose cue ball head belongs in a side pocket. He’s both ruthless and nonsensical, with ideas that might be rejected by even Moe, Larry and Curly. Not that this ever discourages him.

As Barry weaves its web, two detectives also enter the picture. Moss and Loach (Paula Newsome, John Pirruccello) strive to solve who left three dead bodies in two parked cars at the end of Episode 1. Moss also finds herself the object of Cousineau’s affection, with their odd couple courtship very nicely played while Barry (who’s adapted the stage surname “Block”) tries to make inroads with the career-obsessed Sally. “What a turd of a profession,” Cousineau tells a distraught Sally after she hits another roadblock in Episode 6.

Barry may well not amuse some with its portrayal of Afghanistan war veterans. And we’re not only talking about Barry. You’ll have to see how this develops down the road -- before it all ends bloodily and a little too conveniently.

The series likely wouldn’t have worked with one-hour episodes. But in a half-hour’s time, Barry maximizes its punching power while knowing when and how to drop in a sight gag. These include the corpulent Pazar “working out” on a treadmill while smoking a cigar and Root’s Fuches somehow managing to be laugh-out-loud funny with his exposure of a bruise-blotched torso still healing from a previous beating.

The violence in Barry can also be visceral, particularly in the eventful seventh and eighth episodes. Hader’s character is in a full-tilt hell of his own making at this point. His “acting” within an acting school production of Macbeth doubles as the depth of his torment and his one shining moment.

It hasn’t been easy for male stars of Saturday Night Live to be taken seriously when they try to break from their comedic molds. Bill Murray is one of the very few who has managed fairly well in the long term. Another Bill is now giving it a shot -- both literally and figuratively. Which makes Barry all the more impressive, and even thrilling, when he actually pulls it off.

GRADE: A-minus

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