Bill Hader stars in a story of a hitman trying to become a star.
Barry Berkman (Bill Hader) is a former Marine who has turned hitman, working for Monroe Fuches (Stephen Root). Fuches orders Barry to do a hit for Chechen mobster Goran Pazar (Glenn Fleshler) targeting Ryan Madison (Tyler Jacob Moore), an aspiring actor who has been sleeping with Goran’s wife. Barry follows Ryan to an acting class run by Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler), an extremely self-aggrandizing acting coach, and attended by aspiring actress Sally Reed (Sarah Goldberg). Barry gets caught in the class and does a scene, poorly, before he ends up getting stuck driving Ryan home, something witnessed by Goran’s associate NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan). Barry ends up killing Ryan, which is being investigated by Detective Janice Moss (Paula Newsome), but also finds himself drawn to the acting class. Now he’s got to find a way out of the contract killer world in order to pursue his dream… despite his complete lack of talent.
There have been a number of hitman/assassin comedies. There have been hitman/assassin comedies about people trying to leave the business. There have even been shows about hitmen trying to get into the movie industry (Get Shorty, for example). However, this one stands out as an example of this strangely specific subgenre at its best.
Bill Hader’s performance is almost perfect. It’s one of the most memorable characters I’ve seen on TV in a while, mostly because he’s just so broken. Barry is unhinged and emotionally damaged, but not in an over-the-top way. It’s the subtlety with which Hader shows how disconnected Barry is to other human beings that really makes you feel like he’s a real, relatable person. I was a fan of Dexter, but whereas that show and Michael C. Hall’s performance kept saying how crazy Dexter’s psychopathic tendencies were, this show doesn’t ever talk about Barry being messed up, only showing his fantasies and reactions.
I’m particularly impressed by Hader’s ability to play a terrible actor. Barry’s inability to properly express his emotions naturally opposes his ability to get into character and emote on stage. Naturally, this makes him absolutely atrocious at playing any character. However, we finally see him start to draw on his past experiences in order to properly play parts, something that leads to him becoming more confident… to an almost psychotic level, which is an interesting and still realistic way to do character growth. Moreover, despite his inability, he still manages to succeed due to the ridiculous nature of the film and television industry.
The supporting cast is also excellent. Henry Winkler plays a failed actor who somehow convinces everyone else that he is capable of teaching them to succeed where he could not. Given the fact that Henry Winkler was, for a decade, arguably the most successful TV actor in the world, this works amazingly well. Sarah Goldberg plays the stereotypical struggling actress, but she constantly is confronted by the fact that she is not a natural star and that the industry is not going to cut her any breaks. NoHo Hank is the lovable guy with a crush on Barry despite also being a murderous gangster. Fuches is a cockroach who is also somehow charming because he’s played by Stephen Root, a man who excels at making unlikable characters likable.
The writing and direction are both great, allowing for a balance between action, comedy, and dramatic scenes that all still serve their desired purpose. The fact that the story frequently oscillates between inside of Barry’s head and to a third-person omniscient view would normally irritate me, but somehow the show always makes it work.
Overall, amazing show. Recommend finding someone’s HBO account to watch this.
If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time, Collection of TV Episodes, Collection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.
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