Bill Hader stars as Barry in HBO's "Barry."

Bill Hader stars as Barry in HBO's "Barry." Credit: HBO / John P. Johnson


WHEN | WHERE Premieres Sunday at 10:30 p.m. on HBO

WHAT IT’S ABOUT Barry (Bill Hader) is a Marine veteran who fought in Afghanistan, and back stateside, fell into a gig as hit man. He’s quite good at killing people for a fee, and justifies this by telling himself they’re “bad people” anyway. His partner and handler, Fuches (Stephen Root), decides the two of them should go to Los Angeles where the head of the Chechen mob, one Goran Pazer (Glenn Fleshler) and his henchman, NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan), have a job for Barry — to kill the personal trainer who’s been having an affair with Goran’s wife. Barry trails him to an actors’ studio, run by the blustery Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler). Barry is suddenly intrigued by the idea of acting, and especially by one of Cousineau’s thespian wannabes, Sally Reed (Sarah Goldberg). But where Barry goes, so go the cops, and one of them, Det. Moss (Paula Newsome) becomes suspicious of the new student. This eight-parter was created and produced by Hader and Alec Berg (“Silicon Valley,” “Seinfeld”).

MY SAY Barry is a cipher waiting — in fact, nearly begging — to be decoded. His affect is flat. His eyes betray nothing and no one. His face offers no clue about what’s going on inside. Something is, something must be, but Barry is not about to say because he has no idea either.

Meanwhile, there are clues to his past, possibly his psyche. He wears a military memorial bracelet inscribed with the name of a soldier, and Psalm 91:1, variously translated as: “Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.”

That’s ironic because Barry certainly doesn’t. He’s a remorseless, stone-cold killer.

But how remorseless, how stone-cold? Those questions pull at him, occasionally torment him, and finally threaten to destroy him.

We’ve all seen this kind of character many times, while over the past two decades, TV’s “anti-hero” went from breakout to trope to cliché. Barry, and “Barry,” find themselves on the tail-end of this evolutionary scale. That’s not the best place to be. Hader and Berg attempt to avoid this pitfall by turning “Barry” into a black comedy, but they’re not fully dedicated to that idea either. There’s something about putting bullets into people’s heads that drains the funny out of a comedy, however black.

Barry Sonnenfeld famously managed the balance in 1995’s “Get Shorty,” which is probably why “Barry” initially reads as homage, and the series’ name possibly as homage as well. Even the setup — hit man goes Hollywood — is too broad to miss.

But this isn’t “Get Shorty,” and it isn’t completely a drama, and it isn’t fully a comedy, nor even a dramedy, for that matter. It’s about Barry, and for “Barry” to work, you need to get into his head, need to feel whatever it is that he feels. You need to understand his motives, what drives him to pull a trigger and take a life.

Part of the conceit here is to mock the whole anti-hero trope. He’s a hit man, period. That’s his destiny, that’s who he is. The silly acting classes open the slightest window into his humanity, then the window closes. He goes back to Fuches, for the next mark. Eight episodes is a long time to spend with someone this dull — and ultimately it feels like an eternity.

BOTTOM LINE Baffling, dull Barry is a bore, and so is the series named for him.

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