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The Bad Actor

HBO’s "Barry" refreshes elements of noir, as a hitman dreams of Hollywood.

Illustration by Peter Strain

If Bill Hader had been born 100 years ago, he could have been a matinee idol. The same talents that made him a brilliant clown on Saturday Night Live for almost twelve years would have made him a heartthrob in the studio era: the elastic extremities, the syrupy tenor voice, the chiseled face that is almost symmetrical. Many of Hader’s best impersonations on SNL were plucked from vintage showbiz: Vincent Price, John Barrymore, Peter Falk, Peter O’Toole, Rod Serling, Alan Alda. His transatlantic accent could cut glass; he crooned film noir lines like a young William Holden. It was not difficult to imagine him as a leading man who had simply dropped into the wrong decade.

When Hader finally quit SNL in 2013, he went out on a high, having developed one of the most popular original characters on the show. He and writer John Mulaney created a pop culture monster in Stefon, a nightlife correspondent who listed increasingly nonsensical attractions at various clubs. The character highlighted Hader’s strengths: absurdist wordplay, scampish mischief, genuine ebullience. But when Stefon hit, it also left Hader in the classic SNL double bind, where the success of a single sketch both cements a cast member’s fame and threatens to swallow their entire body of work. One sketch too many, and you are forever the Ladies Man, or Pat in perpetuity.

Hader wriggled out of the show just in time. Deciding against doing a Stefon movie, he started to stretch his range: Kristen Wiig’s depressive brother in the glum Sundance darling The Skeleton Twins, the milquetoast romantic hero opposite Amy Schumer in Trainwreck. While he took on an array of personae in the TV series Documentary Now!—a sharp, goofball collection of parodies of acclaimed documentaries, such as Nanook of the North and The Kid Stays in the Picture—it still felt like an offshoot of SNL. Until this year, we had yet to see what Hader could do on his own, with original material.

Which brings us to Barry, a new half-hour sitcom that debuted on HBO in March. Although set in the present, the show is a direct descendant of 1940s noir films, in which an isolated man wanders through a venal Los Angeles, dealing with con men, gangsters, and a smart-cracking blonde. In this case, the man is a former marine who has retooled as a hit man, and the blonde is a plucky ingenue he meets in an acting class. Hader is not only the star of the show but its main creative force. He co-wrote many of the episodes (along with Alec Berg, formerly of Seinfeld and Silicon Valley) and has directed several himself. If he was born to be an Old Hollywood star, Barry is where he finally gets the opportunity to show it.

The premise of Barry is outlandish, but Hader sells it well. After returning from the Middle East, Barry cannot cope with his civilian existence. He is clinically depressed, to the point of not being able to leave the house. Then an old mentor—a schlump named Fuches, played with comic largesse by Stephen Root—convinces him that he might want to work for him as an assassin. The military taught him how to kill, and he turns out to be very good at it. But he can’t justify the work the way he could when he was a soldier. As one character, a policewoman who pursues Barry throughout the series, says, “We are not the same, Barry, because I am a cop, and you’re a fucking murderer.”

The profession is not glamorous. Barry kills people in dingy hotel rooms and then flies back to a dingy apartment, where he awaits his next mission. Hader is good at transmitting his character’s existential malaise with just the slump of his shoulders—in the opening scene, he lopes around a hotel room, where a dead body sits with a gunshot wound to the head, and he sighs at his work as if it is a boring Excel spreadsheet rather than the end of a human life. Barry’s old blues are beginning to creep back in.

In the pilot, a new job takes Barry out to Los Angeles, where he is supposed to eradicate a personal trainer who has been sleeping with the wife of a Chechen mobster named Goran (a cartoonish performance from Glenn Fleshler). The trainer, Ryan Madison, is your typical Los Angeles wannabe: a blond hunk with the personality of a golden retriever, a terrible actor who still aspires to be the next Zac Efron. Barry tails him for the day, riding in a beat-up green hatchback, all the while looking glum and alienated from his labors. When he follows Madison from the gym into an amateur acting class, a series of mishaps forces Barry to go up onstage and read lines with his mark. He has found a passion. Barry—like every other schmo fresh off the plane at LAX—wants to be in pictures.

Of course, this desire is ridiculous. The main problem is not a lack of talent—though Barry, a professional murderer, has very little of that. What makes acting an insane pipe dream for Barry specifically is that silent killers do not, as a rule, put their headshots on IMDb. Fuches flies out to Hollywood to remind Barry of this fact, but before Barry can finish the job he was paid to do, the Chechen gangsters pull a double cross, killing the trainer outside his apartment and attempting to off Barry in the process.

This, as they say, is where the hijinks really ensue. Barry’s military reflexes kick in, and he retaliates by shooting the goons sent to whack him. The Chechens kidnap Fuches and blackmail Barry into doing their dirty work, all while he is getting more and more invested in his acting tribe. He falls for a spirited blonde in his class named Sally Reed (Sarah Goldberg, the breakout star of the show), who works as a princess at children’s birthday parties when she is not going to endless auditions for tiny roles she will never land. Meanwhile, the LAPD is looking for the trainer’s killer and the gunman behind the Chechen murders, a breadcrumb trail that may lead right to Barry’s door.

Barry yearns to leave his life of crime behind: Acting has shaken him out of his depressive stupor, and he sees how he could have an entirely other life on the Golden Coast, unburdened from his sins under the palm trees. And yet he has done terrible things, and terrible things tend to stick. When he tries to extricate himself, a chain reaction of anguish and violence follows.

What makes Barry both so fun and so difficult to watch is that it takes the tired antihero trope and tosses it into a blender with the self-absorption and glossy, often fruitless dreams of Hollywood hopefuls. The show is like The Sopranos meets Party Down (and I’m sure that’s how they pitched it), but it also feels like wholly new terrain. It takes the glimmering Los Angeles myth and asks what would happen if a gangster fell for it. Can a murderer ever use his dirty deeds as the motivation behind a good scene? Is Macbeth best played by someone who has, in reality, killed and can never shake the guilt?

In one episode, Barry strangles a man and, in the next episode, he timidly recites a scene from Glengarry Glen Ross in acting class. He can be far more menacing in his real life than he can ever convey onstage, mainly because he doesn’t want to face up to what he does and mine it for authentic emotion in his work. Later, he turns up at a house party where the guests are mooning over an actor who just got back from shooting a live-action Pinocchio. Barry, uneasy in the networking throng, invites an old Marine buddy, who brings along a group of meathead friends. They end up in a fight. Like the classic protagonists of Hollywood noir, Barry is a man caught between worlds: He is isolated from the shiny set because of his knowledge of the seedy underbelly but never fully comfortable with a life of crime on the fringes.

In the third episode, Barry has to wait outside a man’s house all day with a sniper rifle. The mark is in a Bolivian crime syndicate, and the Chechens tell Barry he has to take him out or they will kill his mentor. As he waits in an abandoned field in the dark, Barry is silhouetted in glowing green. Suddenly, his phone lights up, and it is Sally, lamenting a failed sitcom audition from earlier that day. “Come on, Sally,” Barry says, trying to console her even as he lines up the aim on his target, “you’re like one of the best actresses I’ve ever seen.” He clearly has more energy and enthusiasm for soothing Sally during her solipsistic meltdown than for shooting to kill. As in the Golden Age of crime flicks, Barry may be a man of the streets, but he is willing to give it all up for a high-maintenance blonde who needs to feel adored.

The show is both a slapstick romp and a ruthless tragedy, in which even the Chechen gangsters get pulled into the mess of emotions. It is, maybe even more than Documentary Now!, a love letter to the movies and the would-be stars who head for Los Angeles to make them. In Hollywood, so many dreams die, and so many careers are shot dead, even before they have a chance to grow. Barry makes that reality literal. In Hader’s dark vision of the world, even contract killers suffer under the cruel caprices of show business. When Barry finally comes clean and delivers a poignant monologue about how and why he became a hit man, his face contorts in a grimace. His acting coach tells him that the speech needs work.