1997’s Grosse Pointe Blank was a fun, clever comedy. A professional assassin unhappy in his career decides to attend his high school reunion. The violent killer required to have no emotions and leave no footprints collides with a part of his life that has both. That’s the punchline. It by no means is original, but it works when you have the charm of John Cusack and Minnie Driver.
Bill Hader and Alec Berg’s HBO comedy, Barry, premiered with a similar punchline. Hader stars as a conflicted hitman who is attracted to a life that challenges his identity. The premise is not inventive or complex. Luckily for us, the premise hardly matters. Sustainable comedy is far less concerned with plot than it is character.
(This post is spoiler-free!)
Barry’s excellent premiere gives us a man who knows how to hit every mark but his own. The show refuses to beat you over the head with that simple irony. Barry’s turmoil is felt through Hader’s muted performance. The Jokes aren’t told, they’re shown within the frame. Below the surface is a man losing himself in a struggle to find direction. Outwardly, he just looks sad. This subdued portrayal of confusion and sorrow feels all too familiar. Barry looks like us.
Relatable characters in odd circumstances have defined the swell of dark comedy, a genre that has overtaken drama in the current “Peak TV” era. Berg and Hader make Barry’s unique career look like a bad cup of coffee. The premiere episode shows its protagonist misplace his keys, fly the middle seat in coach, drink Natural Light, and drive a crappy station wagon in traffic. The show puts violence and murder in the frame of an endearing workplace comedy.
Barry’s life is not slick suits and promiscuity. It’s dreary apartments and loneliness. His days are filled with a life and death intensity, where a single misstep could have dire consequences. And yet, he’s bored and depressed. For all of us, purpose is a necessary component to how happy we are in our jobs. You don’t need to know exactly what it is, you just need to have an idea of what it feels like.
The script smartly avoids the snappy dialogue that exists in the lighter moments of a lesser show about a merciless killer. The humor is found in awkwardness everyone recognizes. Barry’s difficulty being around people, especially optimistic eccentrics enrolled in an acting class outside Los Angeles, allows for a lot of funny moments. He is often unable to come up with the right words. Fortunately for the audience, Hader’s eyebrows have always been able to convey a range of emotions that do more than he could ever say. And in Barry, he is flexing that technique with a bevy of other tools to support the long-held feeling that this guy can act.
And so we have a show that is both dark and funny, but more importantly, commands an emotional investment far beyond the premise. Hitman wants to stop doing bad things gets very little screen time. Hitman feels something again does the heavy lifting. Dark comedy has never succeeded by laugh lines. The success is in the realistic struggle of its characters. And real people hardly ever have the punchline ready.
The pilot episode ends with a thrilling reminder that skill and purpose don’t always correlate. Depression doesn’t care about the intensity of your occupation or how good you are in it. That’s what makes the illness so hard to defeat. You have to dig for a solution in a place you’re not familiar with.
For Barry, killing is the set up. The punchlines are found in a life Barry doesn’t know. His plan to explore it anyway is a promising start to finding happiness. It’s also a promising start to a good TV show.