The premise of the HBO show Barry is quite simple: what if a hitman becomes an actor? At first glance, it looks like a random premise that’s emblematic of the glut of TV shows we have had in recent years. There’s a deeper significance though – to be an actor, one has to be vulnerable, has to tap into a range of emotions for their work, and it’s a very public profession; on the other hand, to be a ruthless hitman, one has to have a heart of stone and completely cut off their emotional side to avoid guilt and trauma, and they also have to hide in plain sight.
Bill Hader, famous for his many years of broad comedic performances on the sketch show Saturday Night Live, plays the titular character. Given that history, there could be a hacky sitcom version of “hitman becomes actor” that can be played purely for laughs and ignores all the emotional ramifications that come with taking people’s lives. Thankfully, Barry never goes down that route and plays it straight — every act of violence has consequences that come back to bite the perpetrator. Characters are not considered disposable; they’re not killed off for comedic purposes or shock value.
Barry is quite similar to BoJack Horseman in this regard, another cult favourite streaming on Netflix. Both shows can be devastatingly heartbreaking and hilarious in the same episode, sometimes in the same scene itself. The absurd Hollywood superficiality and wacky hijinks in BoJack are only complemented by the honest portrayal of depression and trauma and vice versa. By all common sense, it’s not supposed to work — tonal shifts can be a tricky needle to thread — but somehow it works perfectly in conjunction. Barry juxtaposes two opposing concepts: acting and assassinating, comedy and violence, mundane and high-stakes, and sticks the landing.
Take, for example, an episode where Barry reluctantly accepts a mission to murder an innocent man. But the morbidity of this storyline is immediately undercut when Barry has to fight and fend off the man’s 10-year-old daughter, who is somehow a martial arts prodigy. Most of the episode is Barry, an army-veteran-turned-hitman, trying to survive while getting his ass kicked by a feral little girl. The episode’s tragic ending only hits harder due to the absurd surrealism of the events leading up to it.
Or another scene from season 3, where Barry has to plant a bomb and detonate it in order to wipe off a gang, which includes one character whose survival we, as the audience, are rooting for. It’s an incredibly tense scene with high stakes; and once again, it’s undercut by the fact that Barry has to download a knock-off Korean mobile app in order to detonate the bomb (the app offers promo codes and first-time discounts). The app doesn’t work at first, so to solve the technical issues, he has to get on a never-ending phone call with a customer care representative, who very cheerfully suggests that he try turning off the Bluetooth and turning it back on again. It’s a laugh-out-loud release that comes from subverting the tension with a mundane conversation that all of us have had in our regular lives.
It wouldn’t do to write an essay on Barry without touching upon the show’s visual language. Bill Hader is a genuine triple threat — he writes, acts, and directs on the show. But it’s in the last of those skills where he’s really showing off and his vision is something to behold. One of his signature moves as a director is to put the audience at a distance, removed from the action.
In a scene, there’s a shootout going on between the police and a Bolivian gang, with some characters caught in the crossfire. A typical director would put the audience (and, therefore, the camera) in the middle of the chaos, showing off the stunts, the special effects and the violence. Instead, we see it from the POV of a character who luckily survives because he’s away from the action, looking down on it from his phone on a video call. It’s almost as if the camera is meant to be an amused bystander viewing the events with an air of nonchalance, heightening the absurdity of the whole situation.
Another one of his go-to moves is to have the real story happening in the background while something insignificant is in the camera’s focus. In a scene, Barry is in a high-speed chase on a motorcycle, escaping from assassins who are hot on his tail. But the chase ends with a random car salesman in focus, talking to some customers. Behind the salesman, outside of the camera’s focus, we see Barry crashing his bike in an accident, falling down and then running away to survive. The comedy comes out of the dissonance between the events happening in the foreground and the background.
I’ll be the first to admit that the visual gags and the absurdity aside, Barry can be quite bleak. It’s more of a drama with funny moments in between rather than a straight comedy. But the story and the performances are some of the best on television right now — no wonder there are multiple Emmy award nominations and wins for its actors. The first three seasons of Barry are now streaming on Disney+Hotstar. Do yourself a favour and go watch it.