Why Hate ‘Roseanne’ When You Can Fall for ‘Barry’?

Hit-man by day, acting student by night -- and distinctly apolitical.

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Barry
Bill Hader as Barry Berkman in HBO’s “Barry."

Amid all the partisan hoopla engulfing the Roseanne reboot (perfectly adequate other than the laugh track), Barry, a new dark comedy that recently premiered on HBO, has sadly been getting the shaft. And that is a shame, considering how the eight-episode series starring SNL alumnus Bill Hader, also serving as co-creator and co-executive producer alongside Alec Berg, is off to a promising start.

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As the eponymous anti-hero, a PTSD-afflicted war veteran turned professional hit-man, the rubber-faced Hader is an unusual choice. Rather than rely on his usual grabbag of chameleon tricks — the facial mugging, the infinite impersonations and repertory of characters popularized on SNL (such as club-loving correspondent Stefon) —  Hader does a counter-intuitive move, playing it straight while everyone around him is one pratfall away from Second City.

Hitman by day; acting student by night.

Even after Barry literally stumbles into a LA acting class while stalking a mark, Hader wears a perpetual expression of impassivity, tempered by vague confusion and disorientation. He has entered a world completely alien to him, an airy universe teeming with sweet, bubble-brained aspiring actors. Alas, it’s a world he can’t escape. He has a job to do — to kill one of these minimally talented thespians, a luckless soul unwittingly banging the wife of a Chechen mobster. Still, Barry can’t help but be intrigued, and somewhat charmed, by these friendly, wide-eyed individuals egging him on to join them. He also can’t help but be attracted to a cute blonde student (a delightfully self-absorbed Sarah Goldberg) in the class.

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Could acting be Barry’s salvation? Juxtaposing Barry’s double life — hit-man by day, acting student by night — the series explores this fascinating, whimsical premise with entertaining results.

As the haunted Barry, Hader is surprisingly poignant and easy to root for. The traits that served Hader well on SNL — the hooded dark eyes framed by slanted eyebrows, the ski-slope forehead and crypt-keeper baritone voice — are mined to their maximum dramatic effect.

Winkler and Hader are comic gold.

In addition to Goldberg, Stephen Root as Monroe Fuches gives Hader solid support as Barry’s handler who’s befuddled by his client’s inexplicable budding interest in the LA arts scene. TV icon Henry Winkler is also terrifically amusing as the temperamental acting guru Gene Cousineau. The scenes between Winkler and Hader are comic gold, particularly one in which Barry confesses to Gene he’s really a contract killer after the latter tells him he’s a terrible actor. Gene is so impressed by the emotional authenticity of Barry’s performance, which he chalks up as brilliant improvisation, he accepts Barry as one of his regular students!

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Be forewarned: Barry is not just a half-hour of madcap misadventure and silliness. Given the nature of Barry’s vocation (as opposed to his avocation), there are explosive spurts of graphic violence throughout the show. If you’re a delicate flower, you may be put off by this; if not, you’re in for a darned good time as Barry is fresh and original fun.

Unfortunately, it’s very possible that Barry may continue to float below the radar and get the HBO boot at the end of its first season. It’s the same reason why the Roseanne reboot has become a publicity and ratings magnet. Barry is distinctly apolitical. The protagonist’s weapon of choice — a long range rifle — doesn’t factor into the equation, as the National Rifle Association (NRA) seems of no polemical importance to Barry and his gun-toting associates. While Roseanne is perceived to be political because the self-named main character, and the actress/comedienne who plays her, are avowed Trump supporters.

The irony here is that other than the debut episode, in which Roseanne and her sister Jackie (the wonderful Laurie Metcalf, tragically wasted so far) are on the outs due to their opposing political views, the revival isn’t actually all that political. It’s still very much the same ABC sitcom it was back in the 1990s, with the white, working-class, Illinois Conners very long on heart and short on cash. The only difference nowadays is that Roseanne and Dan (John Goodman) struggle with issues related to aging, maladjusted adult children and the modern social media age.

Compound these concerns with the very same perennial lack of money and voilà — you get the current incarnation of Roseanne, which is not alienating toward those who didn’t push the lever for You Know Who in November 2016. It’s okay, fellow Democrats. Roseanne is not the pro-Trump rally political opportunists are trying to make it appear. You can watch. It’s safe. Really.

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Iris Dorbian
Iris Dorbian is a business and arts journalist whose articles have appeared in a wide number of outlets that include the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, Venture Capital Journal, DMNews, Playbill, Backstage, Theatermania, Live Design, Media Industry Newsletter and PR News. From 1999 to 2007, Iris was the editor-in-chief of Stage Directions. She is the author of Great Producers: Visionaries of the American Theater, which was published by Allworth Press in August 2008 and An Epiphany in Lilacs, which was published by Mazo Publishers in 2017. Her personal essays have been published in Blue Lyra Review, B O D Y, Embodied Effigies, Diverse Voices Quarterly and Gothesque Magazine.