It has become a ritual in the national sport of culture watching to trace the trajectory of the most beloved Saturday Night Live (SNL) cast members as they evolve — or don’t — into life beyond the mothership. Bill Hader, who was on SNL from 2005 to 2013, has definitely blossomed since his departure, lending his voice to numerous animated films, participating in the clever mockumentary series Documentary Now!, and starring in the Amy Schumer hit Trainwreck.
Now Hader is back on TV as a reluctant hitman on HBO’s fab new show, Barry, whose dazzling series opener (also directed by Hader) is a prize unto itself. Barry is a comedy of the dark sort, about an assassin and former U.S. Marine (Hader) who is very good at his job but is seeking another way of life and livelihood. In collaboration with Alec Berg (writer/director connected to Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Sacha Baron Cohen vehicle The Dictator), Hader has thrown his energies into the new show, and on the evidence of the two episodes aired so far, it’s a thumbs-up scenario all the way around.
Who woulda thunk that the burned-out hitman genre is where Hader would find a place to shine? But yes, there is our man Hader, beloved for his uncanny knack to slip into bizarre SNL characters such as the kinky N.Y.C. tour guide Stefon; the bumbling, cynical TV reporter Herb Welch (who insults his subjects in the field and bonks them with his oversize microphone); or the Italian cinema snob/talk-show host Vinny Vedecci. Like Kristen Wiig, Hader was an empty vessel of a personality unto himself but sprang zanily to life once thrown into character, endearing himself to the American collective memory.
Although Hader has shown up in films and television since leaving the SNL nest, with Barry it feels like the “real” Hader stepping forward and taking his deserved close-up. In the opening shot of episode two, we see just that, in telegraphic hints of the Hader we have known on SNL, as his rubbery, adaptable face shows multiple expressions in short order — part of a warm-up exercise before an acting class led by the dubious acting coach Gene Cousineau (played by Henry Winkler, with touches of the hokum that made his Fonzie character in Happy Days stick to our perception of him).
In the series’s premise, acting is the intended “fallback” career for Barry, who stumbles on an acting class while on a hit job in Los Angeles. The Midwesterner protagonist has gone to Hollywood for a break, taking on a hit job for the Chechen mob, and, like many who land in L.A., intentionally or otherwise, the showbiz bug is temptingly abuzz. As he tells his agent in the killing game, he is contemplating trading in his life of crime — he imagines juggling the two worlds until the new “gig” catches on: “I could do night hits,” he says with a childish grin.
Thus, alongside the skullduggery and bungling malicious actions of the mob-hitman action, we also follow Barry Berkman’s transition into Barry Block, the stage name given him by his target turned classmate, Ryan Madison. Of course, it helps that he has been lured into the class and the acting sphere by an alluring woman (Sally Reed, played by Sarah Goldberg), who we assume will eventually break through Barry’s stunted emotional inner life.
In an odd twist of screen-culture circuitry, the cynical hitman genre reached one of its recent pinnacles with the wild performance of nervous-breakdown-fringing James Gandolfini in Killing Them Softly, upping the ante of neurotic criminality so well established by the late Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano. Following the historical math, the lingering power of The Sopranos helped to create today’s vastly richer and smarter TV landscape, and Hader’s Barry is a descendant of Tony’s nagging internal confusion and quest for self-discovery.
Stay tuned: While Barry’s second episode slips into a now familiar groove of Fargo-like black-comic toothiness and pales a bit by comparison with episode one, the series may be on the road to art-lined hitsville.