“Cousineau’s troupe of hopefuls is fairly diverse, but they’re so one-dimensional that it’s mostly symbolic.”
Episodes Reviewed: Season 1
Creators: Bill Hader 👨🏼🇺🇸 and Alec Berg 👨🏼🇺🇸
Writers: Bill Hader 👨🏼🇺🇸 (3 eps), Alec Berg 👨🏼🇺🇸 (3 eps), Duffy Boudreau 👨🏼🇺🇸 (1 ep), Sarah Solemani 👩🏼🇬🇧 (1 ep), Liz Sarnoff 👩🏼🇺🇸 (1 ep), Emily Heller 👩🏼🇺🇸 (1 ep), and Ben Smith 👨🏻🇺🇸 (1 ep)
Reviewed by Dana 👩🏼🇺🇸
Jammed in the midst of rush-hour last month, doing my part as a good New Yorker to avoid eye contact at all costs, a poster on the subway caught my attention. Famed actor Henry Winkler’s cheesy headshot beckoned, urging me to contact “Gene Cousineau, acting teacher extraordinaire”. But it just turned out to be a clever gimmick for a dark comedy that itself turns on a clever idea: What if a hitman joined an acting class?
In HBO’s Barry, Bill Hader surprises in his ability to play a killer with a crushing case of ennui, but he isn’t compelling enough to carry the show alone. Winkler holds the narrative together with his step-by-step guide to acting greatness, each step doing double-duty as episode titles (“Commit...to YOU”), but his class of oddballs are ill-defined and unlikable, serving mostly as scenery. The show’s leading women—more about them later—are refreshingly human, but the trouble with remarkably unremarkable characters is their lack of hook.
Enter Noho Hank, the saving grace and crowned jewel of Barry. Anthony Carrigan plays the Chechen mobster, whose passions include creative takes on violence and bringing a sense of hospitality to the criminal underworld. He’s the sort of criminal you’d really get along with, provided he wasn’t trying to kill you. For all the show’s flaws, Noho Hank is one of those rare characters that elevates an entire show to something worth watching.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? BARELY...just once in eight episodes
Barry gets points for having three female writers (out of seven total), but out of eight episodes, only one is directed by a woman, Maggie Carey. Onscreen as well, men outnumber women and are significantly more developed. Actors Sarah Goldberg and Paula Newsome play the only significant female characters, both of whom are subordinated in favor of the men whose attentions they’ve caught.
Sarah Goldberg plays Sally, the show’s female lead who draws Barry into the world of acting. Within two episodes, she quickly becomes the object of his daydreams. She exists almost exclusively as a function of Barry’s story, with just a handful of jaunts to herself: a disastrous audition; being propositioned for sex by her sort-of agent; and suffering the consequences of shooting down said propositions. These snippets are all that’s offered outside of Barry’s perspective, leaving an underdeveloped character whose actions can’t be contextualized and whose flaws aren’t explained.
Much has been made of a moment at an early screening in which writer Emily Heller defended Sally to a man in the audience who called her either “unlikeable” or “irredeemable” (depending on the source), to which Heller pointed out that Barry’s the one who kills people, but somehow Sally was the one the audience member took issue with for being ambitious (or “self-involved,” again, depending on who’s reporting it). It’s a valid defense, but one that misses the broader context of where a character’s redemption actually comes from.
Barry’s human side—as with any anti-hero—comes from the fact that the audience is granted insight into the character beyond his bad actions. We learn early on that Barry doesn’t actually like killing people. In other examples, Walter White didn’t set out to become a meth kingpin. Don Draper only behaves badly because he’s running from his past and his insecurities. Yet there’s no explanation for why Sally spends the entirety of the third episode acting sulky and needy as she demands favors from Barry, asides from the obvious: the writers needed to throw a wrench into Barry’s plans. Sally is reduced to a MacGuffin, a plot device whose actions lack the complexity of a human being with whom we can empathize. The only time we get a sense of where Sally’s coming from is when she blows up at Barry for buying her a laptop—a scene that comes on the heels of the stressful ordeal with her agent’s unwanted advances.
As much as Heller’s defense of Sally speaks to long-standing frustrations about how women are scrutinized and judged more harshly than men, it fails to acknowledge the validity of the complaint. Without some understanding of who a character is and what drives them, there’s little basis on which to redeem or like them.
Cousineau’s troupe of hopefuls is fairly diverse, but they’re so one-dimensional that it’s mostly symbolic. Among the aspiring actors are a Puerto Rican man named Antonio (Alejandro Furth), who we learn in the premiere has just booked a role on CSI as a dead body, a black man named Jermaine (Darrell Britt-Gibson), and Sasha (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), a black British woman who performs a terrible “Yankee Doodle Dandy” routine at the funeral for Ryan (Tyler Jacob Moore), the man Barry was hired to kill. Aside from those details, we know almost nothing about them.
Beyond a few ‘under-fives’—a SAG-AFTRA term for roles with fewer than five lines of dialogue—the only notable character of color is Detective Moss, the lead investigator into Ryan’s death. Moss is inexplicably drawn to Gene, a compulsion that Newsome plays with a simmering sense of frustration that makes clear to the audience that she doesn’t know why she’s attracted to him any more than we do. Her character exists mostly to complicate things for Barry as she drops in and out of the acting class to question the group and, in the final episode, joins Gene, Barry, and Sarah at a cabin where Gene inadvertently shares an incriminating anecdote about Barry. Beyond serving as the stock character who threatens to dismantle the carefully constructed wall that separates Barry’s life as an actor and his life as a hitman, it’s not entirely clear what the endgame is for her. It seems unlikely that Moss will develop beyond the investigation, but Newsome brings a wry energy to the role that makes her character both compelling and relatable in a way that the show’s other characters are not.
All of the relationships and romantic inclinations are heterosexual, with no indications that anyone is even remotely queer. Openly gay actor Rightor Doyle plays Nick Nicholby, a fellow Cousineau devoté, but there’s no real indicator of his character’s sexuality. For a show based in Los Angeles about acting hopefuls, the absence of at least one established queer character feels glaring. It’s a lost opportunity to comment on the unique difficulties LGBTQ actors face and worse, and an outright failure to reflect a significant aspect of L.A. culture. Barry uses Tinseltown’s idiosyncrasies as the source of much of its humor, but limits itself to a white, heterosexual perspective.
Mediaversity Grade: C- 2.63/5
It’s easy to mistake Barry’s schtick for a new take, but the core premises that underpin the show are just variations on the straight, white, and male experience. Barry is only believable as an anonymous hitman because straight white men are among the last to be suspected when a crime is committed. They don’t have to walk into every job interview wondering whether they’ll be objectified, or worse—as the show does briefly acknowledge—given a sexual ultimatum. There’s a reason why the Golden State Killer took decades to catch and it wasn’t because he was just that clever.
Even the deeper, more abstract concept in the show, of risking a livelihood at which one excels for a passion at which one can only ever hope to be mediocre, is only plausible for those with deep-seated privilege. The luxury of acting with impunity is seldom afforded to other genders and ethnicities, at least not within American society.
Commercially, it may be smart for the show to ignore its inherent privilege lest it put off its viewers by forcing self-awareness. But critically, it would be fascinating to examine the privilege that enables Barry to live such an unusual life. The show could reflect on what allows Barry to get away with everything. It could leave its audience with a sense of discomfort. Murder, even when committed by a guy who’s reluctant at best and who just wants to buy a girl a laptop, should rattle viewers. Otherwise, it’s just an addition to a long list of bad guys we can’t help but root for, relying on a concept whose novelty is unlikely to last.