The Hilarious Sadness of ‘Barry’

There’s a moment that sums up perfectly the tightrope walk of a mood that Barry is, hitting hilarity and crushing sadness all at once. In the opening of the second episode, Barry is doing an acting exercise where he has to mimic whatever the person in front of him is doing. Then instructor Gene Cousineau informs the class that one of its members has been killed, which Barry already knows since he was supposed to carry out the task. Everyone in the room is grief-stricken, grabbing their faces and gasping in shock. Barry just stands there for a moment, then seeing what everybody else is doing, quickly mimics their sadness and shock to keep his cover. I was laughing incredibly hard, but it’s also extremely sad since Barry can’t conjure up those basic reactions and emotions on his own, he’s just that disconnected from everyone. It’s just a sublime execution of what this show goes for, it’s hilarious and heartbreaking at the same time.

Barry follows the title character, a depressed and withdrawn former marine turned hitman, who after tailing one of his targets to an acting class, decides he wants to become an actor. It’s cognizant of both the real danger of Barry’s life just as much as the screwball potential of it, being as funny as you would expect something starring Bill Hader to be. There’s a part where he does the “coffee is for closers” monologue from Glengarry Glen Ross in the most mild-mannered way, it’s hysterical. Whereas everyone goes over the top with that monologue, he hilariously undersells it. Henry Winkler is always fun to watch goof off, here playing egocentric acting instructor Gene Cousineau.

It’s rare that a film or show can be so bleak and so funny at the same time, and it wouldn’t work for a second without Hader’s performance. Hader has a direct line to my funny bone. If you haven’t, watch his work on the show Documentary Now!, he’s secretly the best part of that show. Fred Armisen is usually playing a usual Fred Armisen character, but Bill Hader dives in deep and straight up becomes his characters with a level of commitment typically reserved for Oscar roles, like Robert De Niro in Raging Bull or Christian Bale in The Fighter. He just becomes the character so intensely. In the season 2 finale, I’ve never seen a performance like the one he gives as an egomaniacal movie producer, an Emmy’s not good enough. But enough about Documentary Now!, I just wanted to illustrate how great Hader is and how hard he commits to his roles. Barry is no exception. You could nominate Hader for best actor in a dramatic series or in a comedic series for Barry, he’s hitting both ends of the spectrum so well. There’s a natural hollowness that Hader taps into that really lets you into the personal hell of Barry, and you realize that Hader isn’t just a funny actor, he’s an actual well-rounded actor with capabilities we haven’t seen from him before.

Not since Eastbound and Down have I seen a show so hilarious nail heartwrenching dramatic moments in the same scene. Barry is fully aware of the very real stakes that having a show about a hitman should have. It seems unafraid, as a comedy, to have a sad ending. Last week’s episode ended on a truly chaotic note, with tragedy likely for Barry. Any other show would find a way out of it, but Barry’s not afraid to get real. And that’s what makes it the best show on TV right now.

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