Sunday, March 25, 2018

REVIEW: 'Barry' - Barry Stumbles Into an Acting Class and Finds a New Purpose in 'Chapter One: Make Your Mark"

HBO's Barry - Episode 1.01 "Chapter One: Make Your Mark"

Barry is a disillusioned hitman from the Midwest. His handler, Fuches, sends him to LA to execute a hit for the Chechen mob, led by Goran Pazar and his right-hand man, NoHo Hank. Barry's target: an aspiring actor who is having an affair with Pazar's wife. Barry follows his "mark" into an acting class taught by beloved teacher/guru Gene Cousineau, and is instantly drawn to the group of students, especially Sally. Barry wants to start a new life in the class, but the criminal world won't let him walk away so easily.

Well, Barry is already a dark and deeply troubled new comedy on HBO. It makes such an interesting pairing with Silicon Valley because the two tones are wildly different. Both happen to be co-created by Alec Berg as well. This show plays things more subtly. Its humor comes from the dark observations Barry has about this world of Los Angeles. It's a show that plays things dryly and for the audience's own amusement. It's not a premiere filled with punchlines intended to create uproarious laughter. And yet, it's a very successful premiere because it already has so much confidence with the story it wants to be telling. It's such a strong starring vehicle for Bill Hader as well. He co-wrote and directed this premiere. This show is clearly his. He is involved in every single aspect of it. That creates a sense of control that is mesmerizing to watch. He understands the best way to frame every situation as an actor, writer and director. He gives himself some really great performative aspects because the show is still named after his character. But he's also very generous when it comes to giving weighty material to some really big names in the supporting ensemble - like Henry Winkler and Stephen Root. The show is proudly doing all of the things the acting class at the center of the story is proclaiming. That adds a meta layer that is refreshing despite how dark and tragic the main narrative ultimately becomes because of Barry's day job.

Barry is just a low-level hitman. He gets a name and then goes to eliminate the target. It's a job to him. It's a job that he is good at and has made quite a bit of money doing. He doesn't have to worry about how he can afford to stay in Los Angeles for as long as he wants. But he is also clearly yearning for more. He doesn't always act quickly when it comes to eliminating his targets. His handler, Fuches, complains when Barry wants to spend an entire day just surveilling the target to ensure that no complications come up that could compromise the organization. It's clear that this guy is cheap and this operation is relatively small. He is branching out as a professional hitman service. And yet, he's not the guy actually carrying out the hits. He instead orders Barry to do them. It's a skill Barry is quite good at. Fuches is also quite skilled at ensuring that Barry's mind never drifts too far from the operation. He is willing to make that face-to-face contact in order to gauge Barry's mental state and bring him back on point. It's a skill he has to utilize a couple of times throughout this premiere. This is clearly a profession he is proud to be a part of. But Barry is feeling aimless and lost. He was promised this being his biggest passion in life. It clearly is for Fuches because he enjoys the money (while not having to spend it on whatever the next mission is). But Barry clearly yearns for something more. It's a yearning that can't be fixed simply by taking him out of the snow-covered Midwest for a mission in sunny California.

Barry has always been able to justify the work that he does because he is killing bad people. He has always reassured himself that the people he kills deserved it. They did something that was so heinous that people put hits out on them. He doesn't always need the details of every case either. He's perfectly fine just being given the name and the address. This is just a job to him. It's a job that he doesn't particularly care about - which is something a whole lot of people can relate to. But the latest hit starts with Barry getting a lot of information on the target. The Chechen mob wants Ryan killed because he is having sex with the wife of their leader, Goran Pazar. Now, Pazar can barely speak when it comes to telling Barry what's going on and why Ryan deserves to die. But his lieutenant, Noho Hank, is perfectly fine sharing as much information as possible. All Barry really needs is verbal confirmation that the two are having an affair. But Noho feels the need to pull up video evidence as well. It's so unnecessary and the show has a lot of fun calling it out as such. It's nice satire of how sometimes stories can really drive home some plot points to make them clear to the audience despite the pain they clearly cause for the people in the middle of the story. None of this information changes Barry's perception of Ryan. He is just his target who needs to be followed and eliminated. He is trying to be more personable by listening to Fuches' advice but that doesn't seem to work. It doesn't seem like Barry truly comes alive and his world is opened until he steps into Ryan's acting class.

Now, it's very amusing that Barry has no idea what an acting class is. He doesn't care that Los Angeles is the city of dreamers where its citizens come from all around the world in order to make it in film and television. That's not why he came to Los Angeles. That's not what he is trying to achieve here. He just came on business and will pack up to return to the midwest as soon as the job is over. But he's curious as to why Ryan is spending so much time in this building. When he approaches to see what's inside, he hears a woman really cursing someone out in a speech. He's then startled when it's her reciting lines. He has no idea what she is doing or why she is upset that she was thrown off. He has no idea what this world is. And yet, he is quickly drawn to it because it's exciting and feels real. It's a group of people trying to get in touch with their emotions under the facade of trying to become famous. The class is led by Gene Cousineau, who is revered by all of his students. Of course, he also comes across as an asshole who is willing to make his students cry in order to pull great work out of them - and then apologizes after the fact without truly meaning it. Everyone is so enamored with him because they see him as their ticket to fame and success in this business. That's not what Barry is after. He's just pulled into this world because Ryan's scene partner is missing. He gets up on stage and delivers his lines. There's nothing to it really. But he hears the applause and the appreciation of his peers. That feeling ignites something within him that he wishes to chase.

Barry is surprised by how generous these students are to him. To them, he's simply another wannabe actor who wants to learn from the best. They quickly take Barry under their wing. It's mostly Sally. She immediately comes across as the sexual attraction for Barry to get pulled into this world. There's not much more than that which is a little lame and unimaginative. He listens deeply to everything that she is saying mostly because he is so fascinated and enamored by her outward beauty. The true nuance of the situation comes when Ryan offers to help Barry with his own monologue for the class. Barry doesn't understand why someone would help him in this regard because he has no idea what he's doing or if he'll even stay with the class. And yet, that offer means so much to Barry. He believes he has talent that should be encouraged and appreciated. He believes he can still kill people while acting during the day. Fuches tries to explain the situation to him about this being a full-time job that defines every fiber of his being now. That speech is enough to get Barry to attempt to carry out the hit on Ryan. And yet, that comes too late. The Chechen mob was impatient and was willing to target him too because they perceived him as getting too close to Ryan. And yes, that was definitely true. Barry no longer saw Ryan as a bad person even though he did resolve to kill him in the end. But it's also a nice action moment where Barry is able to quickly take out three people before they fire a single bullet at him. That's a remarkable skill. In the end though, Barry identifies as an actor more than a hit man. That's a key distinction. He performs for Gene once more and Gene is really unsure of his talent. He delivers this wonderful monologue that is completely true about his life. It's Barry bearing his soul in order to find his purpose in this world. Gene doesn't take it seriously. He just sees it as improvisation that needs work. But it's also enough of a spark to ensure that Barry will continue to pursue this outlet despite also being fine with still being a hitman. It should be very fascinating to see how all of this flies off the rails - because it will inevitably have to.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Chapter One: Make Your Mark" was written by Alec Berg & Bill Hader and directed by Bill Hader.
  • It seems highly unlikely that Noho and Goran are actually dead though. Barry fires at the truck and seemingly hits both of them plus the shooter they've hired to kill Ryan. There is a brief shot inside the truck but that doesn't really mean anything. I'm saying they're alive somehow because both Anthony Carrigan and Glenn Fleshler are listed as series regulars. So, a continuing presence after Barry tried to kill them should be very intense.
  • Barry once stabbed a guy in the genitals for a hit. That's a detail that Fuches is proud of and says Barry should have on his resume when he presents his case to new associates. And yet, the way he delivers that option to Noho and Goran is so random and awkward. As such, they are completely horrified by the suggestion. They don't want Ryan to suffer in agony. They just want him dead as soon as possible.
  • It's fascinating to see recognizable actors playing the wannabe actors in Gene's acting class. The main one is obviously Sarah Goldberg as Sally. This feels like a substantial role for her. But it's also just so charming to see actors like D'Arcy Carden and Kirby Howell-Baptiste show up even though they clearly don't have much to do here right away.
  • Barry is very slow and methodical as he walks away from the crime scene he has just created. It presents as a huge mess that someone will have to clean up. It created a lot of noise as well. The people in the houses turn their lights on to see what's happened. Meanwhile, Barry is just calmly getting rid of his gun and abandoning his car. He just walks to a diner and orders an herbal tea (because they don't have any whiskey).
  • I honestly have no idea what the longevity or appeal of this show can be. And yet, that's what makes it so fascinating upfront as well. It presents with a world of possibilities. It features dark humor that could really become quite twisted if the show commits to it in the future. I have no idea how the HBO audience will respond to it. I hope it gets a sizable audience because it's such a fascinating story told in a well-executed way. But only time will truly tell.