In just about every professional field, passion exists in spades, but talent is hard to come by. Putting aside the vast number of people who never even receive an opportunity to discover their dreams, let alone realize them, that still leaves an enormous glut of people who reach for the moon and only hit the ceiling. Sometimes that’s because of bad luck, but many times it’s because relentless determination often blinds people to their own mediocrity (especially in the creative arts, which feeds off of delusion.) But those who have the courage to pursue their far-flung ambitions are rarely discouraged by their own limited skills (after all, true meritocracies are few and far between) because the catharsis they receive from the work makes the journey all the more palatable.

Then there are some people who find what they’re good at, excel at it, but hate themselves for it. Barry is one of those people. He kills for a living. He’s great at it. And he’s miserable.

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Created by Bill Hader and Alec Berg, Barry was somewhat inspired by Hader’s fraught tenure on Saturday Night Live. A recent Ringer profile of Hader briefly details how the legacy sketch series’ weekly grind placed an intense strain on his personal health. (According to Berg, “He was a nervous wreck for eight seasons, and doing live television was just really brutal on him.”) Hader’s natural comedic chops, team player attitude, and absurdist strain of humor made him a stand-out on SNL, and he’s rightfully considered one of the best cast members in the show’s forty-year history. But Ringer writer Andrew Gruttadaro observes that Hader’s talents as a writer/performer were in direct opposition to his personality, and that restlessness eventually seeped into the development of Barry. “This idea of someone who was incredibly good at something that was not good for them and was making them miserable, but they kind of had to honor their gift — that’s interesting,” explains Berg.

That bit of context puts Barry’s broad logline—a hitman joins an acting class—in a much different light. When Barry’s recon work for a new mark lands him in a small acting class led by the passionate, long-time bit-role actor Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler), he sees just how far positive validation and community can help provide purpose in life. He watches the eager Sally Reed (Sarah Goldberg) over-perform Julianne Moore’s monologue in Magnolia and witnesses the immediate, enthusiastic feedback she receives from her audience. When Barry’s mark, Ryan Madison (Tyler Jacob Moore), mistakes his killer for a fellow actor and pulls him on stage for a rendition of Gary Oldman’s big scene from True Romance (Madison plays Oldman while Barry muddles through Christian Slater’s part), Barry feels true catharsis under the hot lights. He’s uncomfortable with the feeling, but he’s undoubtedly changed by it.

Barry’s first episode, “Chapter One: Make Your Mark” (all the episode titles are taken from Gene Cousineau’s acting book Hit Your Mark And Say Your Lines), goes through the majority of the pilot motions—introducing characters and setting, instigating plot, detailing themes, etc.—but Berg and Hader make the smart choice to keep the action moving at a constant clip to mask the table-setting. Barry communicates its main character’s ennui in brief moments—a shot of Barry’s small, bare apartment featuring no personal touches besides a sole Metallica poster; his despondent expression while playing video games; the disinterested tone he takes with the Chechen mob. It provides just enough emotional foundation to ground the premise in tangible emotional terms. When Barry finally delivers his “improvised monologue” about his own life to a skeptical Gene, it feels earned by the episode’s tight script and Hader’s clean direction, rather than a cheap explanation of the show’s subtext. “I know there’s more to me than that,” Barry says somewhat unconvincingly, echoing the thoughts of anyone who’s ever climbed the ladder of some job they never particularly enjoyed in the first place.

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Hader’s restrained portrait of depression elevates the winning material in interesting ways, especially in the acting scenes. Though his tall frame inevitably dominates any given shot, Hader appropriately makes himself feel small and invisible when surrounded by Gene’s acting class. The new, open environment, filled with enthusiasm and a fair share of poor acting, is his lifeline, but it’s also a world he doesn’t understand. Hader never overplays Barry’s vulnerability on stage, letting only small amounts slip out in close-ups, and yet he conveys the perfect mix of terror and pride. Barry might have spoken his lines in a rushed, monotone voice, but the polite applause, though directed at Ryan, was enough for him to catch the bug.

Barry might be sold on acting, but there are people in his life hell bent on dissuading him from his new outlet, mainly Fuches (Stephen Root), Barry’s hitman mentor and manager, who brainwashes him into believing that being a murderer for hire is his one true calling. Barry also has the Chechen mob on his tail: Once Barry’s hit on Ryan fails to materialize, the mob kills Ryan and then attempts to kill Barry, only for him to quickly murder a car full of their soldiers. But even though Barry has blood on his hands, he feels motivated for the first time in his life. After a tour in Afghanistan, and years using his military training for nefarious ends, Barry finally has a purpose. He has the chance to create a new life on stage, one driven by truth and devoid of pain, but his old life is just around the corner, waiting to snuff him out in a moment’s notice. And scene.

Stray observations

  • Hey there, I’ll be on the Barry beat for the next eight weeks. Let’s try to have fun.
  • The best weird detail is Barry’s “Cruisin’ with WMMS 101.7 FM” shirt that he wears to bed. That’s a real Cleveland radio station.
  • From the brief shot of Hit Your Mark And Say Your Lines, Cousineau writes much of it in the third person. Also, one photo caption reads, “Delta Burke is a lot of work!”
  • Barry brings together a great collection of actors to play Cousineau’s class of wannabes, including D’Arcy Carden, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, and Rightor Doyle.
  • Monologue suggestions for Barry: Robert Duvall’s monologue from Tender Mercies, Brad Pitt’s from Fight Club, and something from K-PAX.
  • Sarah Goldberg has so many great moments in this episode, but my favorite is when she makes a meal out of “Suck my dick” in her Magnolia scene.
  • The polite, cheerful Noho Hank, played by Anthony Carrigan, is an early delight as well. His confused reaction to Barry’s suggestion that he stab his mark in nuts is very funny: “Can’t you just shoot him? Because being shot is very painful. Have you ever been shot? I have. It’s like crazy painful.”
  • “It’s about talent, for sure, but mostly it’s about passion. I mean, do you think Meryl Streep and Kaley Cuoco became stars just because they’re the best? No. It’s because they wanted it the most.”

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