Barry Berkman (Bill Hader, “Saturday Night Live”) is just your average guy, perhaps worryingly so. Literally, he ticks all the boxes. He’s presumably middle-aged, lives in the Midwest and is going through a crisis of sorts. You know, the typical daily onset of existential dread and general dissatisfaction with, well, everything. Furthermore, his past as a Marine continues to play a role in his life, haunting him in the process. To put it quite frankly, his life simply sucks. You can even probably guess his occupation. Accountant? Tax attorney? Disgruntled engineer? Nope — hitman.
As he explains towards the end of episode one of HBO’s titular show, he was approached by a close family friend, Monroe Fuches (Stephen Root, “Get Out”), to continue doing what he was always good at doing: killing people. To shake things up a bit, Fuches assigns Barry to travel to L.A. to carry out a job for the (gulp) Chechen mob — a group he calls one of the scariest he’s ever worked with. Once in L.A., he unwittingly walks into an acting class while stalking his prey, and like thousands who flock to the city every year, he develops a slow realization that no, he doesn’t want to be a hitman. He wants to be an actor.
Just one episode in, I think that this show can be summarized by one sentence: Bill Hader is an all-star. Channeling his inner Orson Welles, he steps into the role of executive producer, writer and lead actor, but in a role that feels strikingly different from what we’ve come to expect from him. He is tight-lipped and convincingly plays a man who is just sick of his life. Rather than expressing his skill in more flamboyant ways, his acting as Barry is subtle and understated. Killing for him is just a job. There’s no glamour, no excitement, nor the danger one would expect from such a profession. He doesn’t actually relish any kills and takes a nonchalant, passive view to his job.
Compounding everything, he is completely alone, which is why his life changes as he finds a community in the group of actors he meets. Taught by the brilliant Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler, “Better Late Than Never”), the group consists of several out-of-towners who come to L.A. to pursue their dreams. Most work during the day as bartenders or personal trainers rather than hitmen, but Barry finds himself drawn to them nonetheless, regaining some sort of spark in his humdrum life. Despite this massive change, Hader’s acting makes this surprisingly believable.
Barry’s stonefaced, robotic nature makes him quite an effective hitman, but it’s not quite clear how he will eventually open up to become an actor, especially one that Cousineau will come to respect. Nonetheless, “Barry”’s mix of violence and comedy already prevalent in the season premiere are encouraging and make this show one to keep your eye on.