“Barry” invites comparisons to “Get Shorty,” focusing as it does on a hit man who’s suddenly and somewhat inexplicably bitten by the acting bug. But this HBO series from Bill Hader and “Silicon Valley’s” Alec Berg turns into something more interesting, a bittersweet dramedy that’s uncomfortably funny and simultaneously dark and tense.
Reflecting a serious departure from his “Saturday Night Live” antics, Hader brings an understated quality to the title role, playing a guy who’s good at killing people, just not very fulfilled by it. So when a job in L.A. brings him into contact with an acting class presided over by the eccentric Gene Cousineau (a simply wonderful Henry Winkler), Barry decides to hang around, quickly becoming enamored with Sally (Sarah Goldberg), whose struggling-actress shtick is practically a show unto itself. (At one point, she tells Barry he needs to deal with his “toxic masculinity” issues.)
Of course, Barry’s decision to embark on this new late-in-life career path comes with its share of baggage, starting with the ruthless, gun-toting Chechens of whom he’s run afoul. His behavior is also a mystery to his handler and sort-of friend Fuches (Stephen Root), who doesn’t want to risk messing up their profitable relationship.
Part of “Barry’s” kick comes from seeing those striving on the periphery of Hollywood – with all the attendant self-absorption and insecurity – through its title character’s eyes. Even Barry seems confused by his unexpected longing to be part of this world, which both excites and mystifies him.
Hader (who also directed a number of the episodes) brings a sense of menace to Barry – including his dead-eyed stares when Gene tries to motivate him by pushing his buttons – but also a sense of emptiness, which gets beyond the cliché baked into the premise of what HBO is cheekily promoting as a “hit show.” It also helps that the producers have done a savvy job casting around the margins, including the aforementioned Root and Glenn Fleshler (“True Detective”) as the head of the Chechen gang.
Somewhat awkwardly paired with “Silicon Valley,” “Barry” has a distinctive feel that isn’t neatly pigeon-holed. Still, HBO made all eight episodes of the first season available, and when it’s over, there’s genuine curiosity about what might come next.
That isn’t automatically the prescription for a “hit,” but in TV terms, it’s a pretty good sign that where it matters, “Barry’s” aim is true.
“Barry” premieres March 25 at 10:30 p.m. on HBO.