Watching the pilot of HBO’s wonderful new black comedy Barry, I found my brain wandering back to the Hellraiser horror franchise and its poster demon, the nail-faced cenobite known as Pinhead. A longtime object of personal fascination, Pinhead remains shrouded in mystery, though the second installment reveals that he reports on his various hellraisings to a deity known as Leviathan. That he has a boss raises the question of whether hellraising is an eternal calling, or merely a job into which he’s been locked. Does he relish raising hell? He occasionally appears to take pleasure in taking lives, though far more frequently, he’s got a stale look of disconnect on his pointy face. He raises the hell, yes. But in another, more abstract respect, is the hell not raising him?
No Hellraiser film has fully reckoned with the existential weight of Pinhead’s lot in life, but Barry comes close.
Bill Hader spends most of this superb series opener with that same numbed expression, the dull gaze of a man resigned to the fact that he’s going to spend the rest of his life doing something that no longer stimulates him. Like Pinhead, Hader’s mild-mannered Barry is in the business of murder, flying all over the country for assassination assignations. In “Chapter One: Make Your Mark,” Barry explains how he got into the hit-man industry — home from Afghanistan, feeling placeless and probably wrestling with some PTSD, he accepted an offer from a family friend with connections — but he’s recently been having trouble explaining to himself why he stays in it.
The most obvious reasons are that he’s very good at what he does, that his alternate career options are severely limited, and that he’s used to this way of living. For a lot of people, that’s plenty. But Barry is not most people; in time, what must have initially been a comfortable stasis has soured into an uncomfortable one. The show joins Barry in a depressive funk, carrying out hits in a narcotized fugue state of indifference. He’s looking for a purpose, something he can do that provides him with fulfillment and a sense of meaning in his life. He wants to feel alive instead of surrounding himself with death. He wants emotion, he wants a connection, he wants truth. What he gets is an acting class, and if you’re willing to buy into it, that’s a pretty damn good facsimile.
Acting classes are a business, as the curt demand for payment up front in cash from teacher Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler) reminds us, and what they’re selling is the idea that acting is hard. Acting is hard, but it’s to the massive fiscal benefit of acting teachers that impressionable students believe that to be true. Acting classes wouldn’t exist if acting was easy, so teachers have to preach a heady gospel. The craft of a thespian isn’t about showing up on time or knowing your lines or even taking direction, never mind that these are the skills getting small-time actors rehired. Performing is about living with intention, about accessing the innermost parts of yourself and bending them to your control, et cetera. Acting teachers hawk the fantasy of acting as a portal to honest self-awareness, and Barry arrives as the perfect customer.
Director-star Hader (who also co-created and co-writes the show with Seinfeld alum Alec Berg) generates most of the laughs in this first episode by juxtaposing the excitement of killer-for-hire work with the drudgery of being the traveling auto-parts salesman Barry claims to be. After shooting a guy in the head, Barry is rudely awakened on the plane home by morning rays after some dingus pulls open the shade. His hotel sucks, his rental car sucks, his apartment sucks. Acting can provide Barry with respite from more superficial annoyances in addition to the gnawing hole at the center of himself. He stumbles into Cousineau’s acting class while tailing a target, and it offers an answer to all of his problems. It sure feels like destiny calling when a cute classmate later tells him, “There are always a million reasons not to do something, Barry. But if you want it, go for it.”
That’s the second of two moments so arresting they border on the heavy-handed (the lone false step in an otherwise exemplary introduction), the first being a POV shot from Barry’s vantage point of a stern-faced Cousineau asking, “Who are you?” Placed in a larger symbolic context, that question triggers the midlife crisis percolating in Barry’s soul and guides him to the answer he presents in the episode’s final line. (“I’m an actor,” a waitress tells him. “So am I,” he responds.) He’s found something new to be.
If making the professional pivot was that simple, however, there would be no show. Crime is a tricky line of work to escape, and there will undoubtedly be more Chechen mobsters to replace the ones Barry blew away. Pinhead had to learn the hard way that there’s no exit out of hell, and Barry has remanded himself to the most inescapable hell that there is: the Los Angeles theater scene.
• For such a downbeat, existentially ponderous half-hour, Barry’s pilot is still screamingly funny when it wants to be. The Chechen gangsters paying Barry’s fee could have stumbled into Los Angeles from a much goofier comedy; when one insists on playing footage of the other’s wife with another man, he snaps, “He already gets it! Why show footage? You are just impressed with yourself for planting lipstick camera!”
• Wearing that henley shirt makes Bill Hader look not like Dexter Morgan, but like a guy dressed up as Dexter Morgan for a costume party, further underlining his out-of-place feelings in his own field of expertise.
• There is perhaps no type of person in the world easier to make fun of than community-theater actors (see: Waiting for Guffman), but to his credit, Hader doesn’t go for the low-hanging fruit. A classmate’s rendition of Gary Oldman’s monologue from True Romance is bad, yet no worse than anything you’d find in an actual acting class. The closest the episode comes to anything nasty or mean-spirited is the line, “Do you think Meryl Streep and Kaley Cuoco became stars because they’re the best? No! It’s because they wanted it the most.” Even that, though, is good enough to get a pass.
• Stephen Root, precisely the kind of character actor whose name could one day be a punch line on this very show, does fine work as Barry’s partner/manager Fuches. In the hopes of keeping their hustle alive by suggesting a less time-intensive hobby, he delivers the episode’s best line: “Hitler painted! John Wayne Gacy painted. It’s a good, solid hobby.”