The dark city. (Photo by Paul Garaizar on Unsplash.)

In ‘Barry,’ tragedy masquerades as comedy

Genre-bending show shines when it commits to its premise

In Barry, HBO’s newest comedy series, Bill Hader plays a hitman. What’s the twist? Shouldn’t it just be that Bill Hader, SNL alumnus and rising film & TV star, is playing an assassin?

Nah.

The twist is that Hader’s character is a hitman who wants to be an actor.

Okay, there’s more to it than that: After stumbling into an acting class while on an assignment to kill one of its students, Barry (Bill Hader), an ex-marine, finds himself fascinated with acting. He also finds himself fascinated with aspiring actress Sally (Sarah Goldberg). And as he gets more involved with the acting class and his erstwhile love interest, the violent collision between his hobby and profession becomes inevitable.

But still—it’s a show about an assassin who wants to act. It’s The Bourne Identity meets La La Land. When you put it that way, it really seems like the show shouldn’t work. At all.

The seemingly preposterous premise is just that—preposterous. And while Barry takes pains to explore its twin worlds of lighthearted crime parody and the–struggle–to–make–it–in–Hollywood genre, it also turns both genres on their head, and not just through their juxtaposition.

Showrunners Alec Berg and Bill Hader frame these two disparate genres within a story structure that audiences will be familiar with, whether they recognize it or not.

Tragedy.

Yes, HBO’s newest comedy is actually a tragedy. Surprisingly, it works really well—especially when it sprinkles in some classic elements of film noir.

Spoilers for Season One of Barry follow.

Trailer for Season 1 of Barry.

Parody as subterfuge

For the most part, Barry’s plot traverses two disparate worlds. There’s the world of assassins and drug warfare—and then there’s the acting class full of wannabe Hollywood stars. The two settings serve as vehicles to parody crime films and the empty dreams of hopelessly mediocre actors. Initially, such a juxtaposition doesn’t make much sense. But the genius of Barry is that the two genres eventually cohere to form the classic elements of a tragedy.

First—the criminal element.

Early on in the show, Barry’s dark profession is played for laughs. For a hired gun, he’s remarkably nonchalant. He kills his targets — not with the cool, calculating menace of a Bourne assassin — but with the exasperated frustration of a contractor who continually finds that the expectations of his clients are confusing and confused. The Chechen gangsters he works for are grounded in how normal they are, an immigrant family that just happens to be involved in violent crime. A significant plot point in Barry revolves around how the members of the Bolivian gang (the rivals of the Chechens) — just happen to be way nicer than the Chechens expected. Noho Hank (Anthony Carrigan), the Chechen gang’s cheery oddball consiglieri, is easily the funniest character of the bunch for being a total eccentric in a hyper–masculine group.

Toward the front end of the show, the crimes are smaller. Barry fulfills a few ‘contracts’ but they don’t have much impact. This is signaled as a crime parody—at the beginning.

On the other end of the spectrum—there’s the world of aspiring actors.

Rather than the archetypal talented but luckless aspirants, the majority of acting students are just stereotypical high school ‘theater’ kids—except in Barry, they’ve all grown up. It’s clear that very few of them have a shot at ‘making it in Hollywood.’ Not even their revered teacher, Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler) can land a gig. (In one scene, he’s shown auditioning to be an insignificant extra—and fails to land it). Sally, the most ‘successful’ student, tragically loses her agent after he tries to pull a Harvey Weinstein on her. Sally’s character is a brutal parody of the archetype Emma Stone played in La La Land. Sally has the passion to want to be an actress, but her abilities don’t match up with her desires (and the misogynistic culture that still pervades Hollywood doesn’t help). The wannabe actors are just that — wannabes.

Barry’s daydreams of success in the acting world are also lampooned for being ridiculous. He dreams of hanging out with Jon Hamm at a barbecue. He dreams his future kids can teleport to school. He dreams of shopping at Whole Foods with Sally. (Okay, that last one seems a little more realistic, given our Amazon–based future). The audience knows that his dreams are painfully unrealistic.

Most films about Hollywood indulge in one character’s final success in the film world as proof of the film industry’s magic. There’s a reason why these types of films often do well at the Oscars—La La Land, The Artist—they reinforce the myth that “anyone can become a star” that Hollywood loves to perpetuate.

Both the Hollywood and crime genres, though, are the ‘sheep’s clothing’ for the ‘wolf’ plotline of the show: Barry’s transformation, which we anticipated; and the cost, which we did not.

Story beats from the ‘Scottish Play’

It seemed evident, from the get-go, that Barry’s character arc would involve choosing to leave the assassin profession, and by association, breaking with his handler Fuches (Stephen Root).

When Berg and Hader introduce the acting class’ production of Macbeth, they signal that the twin parodies are not all that they seem, and maybe Barry’s arc is less positive than we expected.

(Macbeth, of course, is Shakespeare’s classic play about ambition gone awry. Short synopsis: When the warrior and feudal lord Macbeth listens to a prophesy that he will become the king of Scotland, his wife helps convince him to seize his destiny by secretly killing the current king. The crime, while fulfilling the prophesy, eats away at them psychologically, especially when Macbeth realizes he must murder more and more people, including his best friend—to preserve his secret and quell rebellion. In the end, all is lost, and Macbeth contemplates the pointlessness of existence.)

There’s a lot in this allusion, and Berg and Hader fully deploy Macbeth as a model for the direction of the show, featuring several key scenes from the ‘Scottish Play’ over the course of the series.

Like the warrior Macbeth, Barry has killed before, but it’s either been on the battlefield—or justified because he’s been told his target is “bad.” When Barry’s acting life pulls him into reconnecting with his old Marine pal Chris (Chris Marquette), he suddenly has a lot to lose.

As the acting class world is brought into the crime world and Barry’s only preexisting friend, Chris—one false step leads to another.

Before Barry knows it, he has joined forces in his ‘business’ with his new Marine friend, the lunkhead Taylor. After rejecting Fuches’ idea of killing off Taylor to protect the operation, Barry finds that perhaps his desire to stop killing threats was a mistake. For it is Taylor who then unnecessarily involves yet another Marine, Vaughn (Marcus Brown)—and Chris. That’s when the consequences of Barry’s dual lives are revealed.

At the end of Episode 6, the Bolivian cartel guns down Taylor and Vaughn. Barry and Chris survive, but Chris can’t take it. He confides in Barry that he’s going to come clean to the cops.

Like the case of Macbeth and Banquo (Macbeth’s friend)—Barry does the unthinkable. To preserve his freedom, he kills his old friend.

From then on, the show takes on the flavor of a tragedy. One seemingly innocuous act, enrolling in an acting class—spirals out of control.

Though we want and expect it to be, Barry’s acting class isn’t his salvation. It’s leading him more quickly to hell.

The Postman Always Rings Twice

As in Macbeth, the consequences of the original murder follow the protagonist. To neutralize perceived threats, Macbeth must kill more and more people. Barry follows this thread pretty well—but it adds on some elements from classic film noir and hardboiled fiction.

Principally, it’s the getting–away–with–murder story. As explored in the classic James M. Cain novels and movie adaptations Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, a plot to make the “perfect crime”—i.e., a murder in which there seems to be no chance of getting caught—inevitably falls apart. Growing paranoia, gnawing guilt, and justice’s relentless pursuit eventually combine to result in the antihero’s defeat. Often, that defeat is self-imposed, the murderer coming to terms with their damnation and surrendering to the police—or death.

The decision to set Barry’s harrowing conclusion in a cabin in the woods adds to the noir vibe. Fittingly, like ‘Sunny California,’ the place where “nothing can go wrong” is where everything does.

Having followed Detective Janice Moss (Paula Newsome) through the entire story—through her investigation of the Chechens, through her unlikely romance with acting coach Cousineau—her discovery that Barry is the killer raises the stakes. The audience cares about Moss, and now she’s in danger. Barry’s initial sidestepping of her passive-aggressive questioning at the cabin belies what he knows he has to do to bail himself out yet again.

It’s a set-up straight from a film noir confrontation between detective and killer, just like Edward G. Robinson’s character confronting Fred MacMurray’s in Double Indemnity.

Barry has to kill the detective—his acting coach’s lover. With it, his dreams of acting and a stable life with Sally are shattered—all because he got into acting in the first place. That’s tragedy in its purest form. The law of unintended consequences caught up with Macbeth—the most surprising thing is that now, in an HBO comedy, it catches up to a guy named Barry.

Barry has been renewed for a second season, due out sometime in 2019.