I am very late to this but HBO’s Barry is a brilliant piece of television.
It’s smart, it’s sad, it’s scary, it’s funny, and it features such an amazing cast of characters who are so intentionally shitty that you often confuse the acting with the actor. Thus is the sign of a good show!
The show is also a grand study in Los Angeles living and, within that, the world of acting, of theatre, of performance. For the unfamiliar, the show follows the titular Barry (Played by a fantastic Bill Hader, who also created the show with Alec Berg.), a former Marine turned hitman who gets tangled up in – and bewitched by – an acting class that a hit is involved with. What unfolds is a tension between Barry’s intense working life as a hitman and escaping the job to act, to emote, to be someone else.
This premise lends itself to some spectacularly funny bits and is a meditation on becoming someone else by any means necessary, this theme manifesting in big and small ways. A lot of this, as obvious as it sounds, is depicted through the metaphor of acting and performance which is why the acting class as a liminal space of transformation is so key to the show and the transformation of Barry (and other characters).
Yet, for the uninitiated, there is something really fucking hysterical happening: the acting classes are too real. The mirroring exercises, the forming words together, the “drawing from life,” the “giving gifts” in a scene, and so many more tiny details, little micro-moments in the show that seem to be silly-to-be-silly, are all so painfully real in the world of acting. These are all things that I did in my acting classes, both in Los Angeles and in college in Washington, DC, that build a cult of personality and a “freeness” to inhabit other mindsets. What appears to be ridiculous behavior to paint the room of a TV show is in fact very real, very awkward acting games and exercises that people take very seriously in said spaces.
This is all to say: what Barry accomplishes as a show is a scathing, loving, too-close-to-home depiction of what it means to be an actor and to want to be an actor. The setting your life aside so a friend of an assistant can see you, the smiling through tears as a friend who is a worse actor than you gets a lead role, the putting on a mounting of an awful play that no one will see, the going to terrible drinks at a terrible bar just to “network” with terrible actors: these things are the all-to-real reality of acting life for those truly starting from the bottom. A lot of this seems like throwaway yucks but they are extracted from very real spaces, one that Hader’s rags-to-riches acting career offers receipts for, that he too went through these spaces and surpassed them thanks to determination and shaking up life. This drawing from life – and from the inherent comedy from acting – is what makes a show like Barry so great because it presents reality that seems too absurd to be real but, for those on the inside, its realness is so uncomfortable that it becomes hysterical, a fun house mirror.
As the show marches toward potential Emmy success, know that the center of the show – the use of actors and acting – is unsettlingly authentic. Yes, that may be why Hollywood elites love it but, as the show tells, the truth is sometimes stranger than fiction. Thus is the world of acting.