Saturday Night Live made Bill Hader a star. It also nearly destroyed him.
“I was not very emotionally and mentally equipped to be doing live television,” the actor told The Lantern. “It would really freak me out, I would have really bad panic attacks and anxiety about that. [...] It wasn’t the show’s fault or anything, it was me just having really bad anxiety about going on live television and it was making me sick.”
It’s that idea, that sense of being funneled into something that you’re good at but is tearing you apart, that fuels Barry, Hader’s new show on HBO.
[Warning: The following contains spoilers about the the first three episodes of Barry.]
It’s the same archetype we saw in Grosse Pointe Blank: A man joins the army, realizes he’s very good at killing people, comes back from combat without much of a plan in place and ends up going into business for himself.
Barry, which was created by Hader and Silicon Valley’s Alec Berg, hints that Barry is in the middle of an abusive relationship with an uncle-like figure who is taking advantage of his ability to murder on command. The show turns a hitman — a character that pop culture often sells us as charming and a master of their environment — into someone who feels like a victim of his environment.
And all Barry wants to do is act. The problem is that, after years of closing himself off emotionally in order to stay professional, he’s completely out of touch with his own feelings or the feelings of others. A scene at the end of the pilot episode shows what happens when Barry opens up to another person to talk about who he is and why he’s miserable. Hader is a revelation here: It’s a portrait of someone who is so unhappy in their own skin that they’re trying to claw their way out by any means necessary.
The other character treats this speech as a joke, a live audition for an acting class. Barry gets in. But no one hears him.
A show about an alienated man trying to reconnect could be painfully trite in 2018, but Barry is able to keep things fresh by focusing on the ways in which certain talents can become a prison. Barry wants to be an actor because it’s the only thing he’s found so far that makes him feel human again. He’s very bad at it. He just wants to stop killing people, dammit, even if it’s the only true talent he’s ever had.
Of course, fame would bring a whole host of problems for someone with a line of dead bodies in their past. Barry seems doomed to fail by the show, and the third episode wastes no time in setting up how high the stakes are for the titular character. Another master assassin is introduced, shown to be a husk of a human being due to his professional life, and is then removed from the show in the saddest, most predictable way possible.
There’s no future for Barry if he can’t get out of his current line of work, and he knows it. It’s a strange jump to get from Hader’s own journey away from live television into a time of relative mental health, to a show where the lead character has to find the strength to make the same journey without the talent to do so. Hader was fine after SNL because he can write, act and direct. Barry is looking for an escape hatch in an area where he has less than zero talent.
Did I mention the show is relentlessly funny? These themes are mined for laughs in a way that feels desperate, because if there wasn’t anything to laugh at, all these people would be screaming, all the time. This is the only show I can think where an existential hitman is forced to act in a horrible recreation of Gary Oldman’s biggest scene in True Romance.
If you’re not watching it, start. Barry’s first season is currently airing on HBO, and the show has already been renewed.