We’ve all been there.
A life choice that seemed perfectly reasonable at first is now onerous and burdensome, an existential noose around the neck that is either going to crush you or choke you, or both, and your only choice is to find an alternative, one you can actually live with.
Easier said than done in most cases, especially if you’re Barry Berkman/Barry Block and you have spent your post-military career carrying out hits on “bad people” (easier for your conscience if you see them that way) in partnership, and trust me, this is a very loose concept, with one Monroe Fuches (Stephen Root), a supposed friend who in reality is anything but.
Add loneliness to this simmering brew of dissatisfaction and you have a full-blown life crisis, one that forms the emotionally-resonant core of Barry, created by Alec Berg and Bill Hader, who stars at the hitman with a troubled soul.
Of course, leaving the life of low-rent hitman behind is easier than done, and when Barry ends ups in L.A. to kill a would-be actor, and gym junkie Ryan Madison (Tyler Jacob Moore) and trails him to his weekly acting class, he realises that perhaps the stage is the place for him rather than staring down the targeting scope of a gun.
As premises go, this one is ripe with all kinds of possibilities, dramatic and comedic, and Barry deftly mixes both elements to brilliantly-moving effect, offering up a relatable midlife crisis scenario that anyone who’s past 40 and still has a beating heart – this assumes Barry hasn’t killed you yet – will find strikes a chord.
So intensely relatable, despite its gloriously out there premise, is HBO’s latest dramedic gem that one of the best scenes of television for the year – yes in the era of Peak TV this is a bold claim but hear me out – occurs when Barry, hopeful after years of lingering misery, is encouraged to find his acting voice by the idiosyncratic acting coach (and now deserved Emmy winner) Gene Cousineau played Henry Winkler.
His performance is driven by all kinds of inner demons finding momentary, unexpected expression but it reveals that Barry might just have the makings of an acting powerhouse, and watching the childlike delight on his face when Cousineau gruffly tells Barry that is one of the most heartwarming things you’ll have seen in a long time (yes, Facebook cat memes included, trust me).
That one pivotal scene at the end of a first episode which also includes a hit gone both right and wrong, thanks to gleefully and yet violently incompetent Chechen mobsters led by Goran Pazar (Glenn Peshler) and hilariously deadpan sidekick Noho Hank (Anthony Carrigan) sets the tone for the following seven episodes which embrace the life of life as a tragically funny gothic opera of ludicrously epic and amusingly low key proportions.
As Barry awakens to the idea that there may be more to life than popping a seemingly neverending stream of bad guys – Fuches is a greedily selfish guy who sees Barry as the cash cow that keeps on giving, corroded soul be damned – he also comes across that other great stinging reality of existence that upbeat blowhards like Tony Robbins fail to mention — that inspiration is one thing but finding a way to make it happen is quite another.
Every attempt Barry makes to step into the glittering thespian dreams of his recent life epiphany, egged on by his love for fellow actor wannabe, the wantonly selfish Sally (Sarah Goldberg), comes hard against the fact that everyone else wants him to keep using his god-given talents to murder his fellow man.
Granted a life of crime is a messy web that ensnares you in ways more legal lines of employment likely don’t – this is speculative at best but I can’t imagine you can just give notice to a crime boss and be done with it – but there are deep and abiding corollaries to whatever it is you find yourself doing in life.
You might want to go with a newly-unveiled option B but life keeps getting in the way, stubbornly throwing option A and its many benefits such as paying the mortgage and eating in your face repeatedly to the point where you’re inclined to give up.
Barry gets close to that self-defeating point, with his every effort to become an actor and leave Fuches, the Chechens and the police, led by Detective Moss (Paula Newsome) behind, stymied by an escalating gang war, a violently-deranged ex-army vet Taylor (Dale Pavinski) who is the antithesis of Barry’s coolly organised killer and wants in on the action, and a thousand other complications all of which may be alien to us in fact but which will resonate on all kinds of existential levels no matter who you are.
It’s this relatability, some damn fine writing that is both deeply-affecting and hilariously funny depending on the situation and uniformly brilliant performances, that makes Barry such a pleasure to watch.
The show never tilts too far in either direction, its violence and the often glib responses to it, sounding authentic in the vividly-real and yet surreally blackly comedic world Berg and Hader have created.
Central to this throughout is Hader’s robustly vulnerable performance as a man driven to commit acts that sicken him every time, each killing taking a little more of his soul, entrenching his isolation from the mainstream world around him that he longs desperately to be a part of, his pleading to people not to push him to the point where he has to kill them, heartbreaking to the core.
Barry is really the story of a man on the edge, someone forced into a life he never wanted, unable to envisage an alternative until his old life, by some glorious stroke of fate, introduces him to his potential new one.
Getting there though is the challenge and amusing though Noho Hank’s immensely-funny lines are – the Chechen is a soul mate of Barry’s even if if he is loathe to admit it – and the escalating tit-for-tat violence is in its sheer epic insanity, what anchors Barry, and keeps you glued to every last gripping moment, is Barry himself who is very human, very real, and mired in the kind of poor, or once sensible, life choices that afflict us all.
Sure, for most of us, our life choices don’t run the risk of killing us or those around us, one-by-one or en masse – even here Barry is beautifully, affectingly-wrought – but at their heart all our choices leave us with unpalatable choices and watching HBO’s latest televisual triumph is proof, once again that dying is easy, it’s the living that’s hard.