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TV Review: Bill Hader and Henry Winkler in ‘Barry’ on HBO

With:

Bill Hader, Henry Winkler, Sarah Goldberg, Stephen Root, Glenn Fleshler, Paula Newsome, Anthony Carrigan, Darrell Britt-Gibson, D’Arcy Carden. 

Barry,” a low-key but likable caper comedy, represents a collision of three genres: It’s a single-camera half-hour show set among aspiring creative types, it’s one of a new breed of generally restrained “comedies” about characters who live with depression, and it’s a crime saga in which unexpected consequences keep piling up on an increasingly stressed-out protagonist. It’s so slight at first that it barely registers, and given the number of recent or semi-recent programs exploring similar terrains, “Barry” feels more than a little derivative at first. But over the course of its eight episodes, this hybrid achieves a pleasing momentum, and it contains a number of dryly entertaining comedic performances.

Chief among the pleasures of the series is a knowing and deft performance from Henry Winkler, who plays a Los Angeles acting teacher with a faintly cult-like following (it’s telling that most of his students can barely make rent, but the lordly teacher drives a luxury car). Barry, who’s been sent from his Cleveland home to Los Angeles to take out an aspriring actor, ends up falling in with a group of scrabbling, self-absorbed actors instead. The two worlds Barry inhabits — that of largely unsuccessful actors and that of well-compensated but dangerous criminals — continue to collide as the season progresses, and “Barry” acquires more heft and appeal in later installments, as the sad hitman begins to wake up from his mental fog and realize how much danger he and his friends are in.

“Barry” explores the idea of channeling one’s pain and damage into art, but the show is generally less pretentious and more perceptive about that process than some of the characters on the screen. The ragtag band of performers Barry hangs out with are more or less appealing, but TV shows sending up coastal creative types are thick on the ground at the moment, and it takes a little while before “Barry” stops laughing at the actors’ excesses and begins laughing with them. That said, Winkler, among others, is good at peeling back the pompous and self-absorbed layers of his character to find the truthful artist inside — and, whatever his flaws, he gets Barry and others to do the same.

At no point in history has Stephen Root ever been anything but wonderfully entertaining to watch, and that’s the case here; he brings a delightfully squirrelly energy to the role of Fuches, Barry’s hapless manager (to be clear, Fuches oversees the hit-man contracts — Barry’s not really good enough to rate a Hollywood manager). Glenn Fleshler is terrific as a Chechen gangster trying to bolster his Los Angeles businesses, though if there’s one consistent problem with “Barry,” it’s that the dialogue for the criminal types is often too clever by half. Much of those characters’ banter is self-consciously “funny,” and the artificiality of a number of exchanges in “Barry” can make certain scenes and characters seem especially smug and predictable. The viewer should also be warned that, though the show doesn’t particularly glorify violence, there’s a lot of bloodshed and gunplay in a number of later episodes.

All in all, “Barry” — a wry and sometimes successful attempt to blend elements of “Breaking Bad” and “BoJack Horseman” — ends up being a solid showcase for not just the extended cast but Hader himself. As a character, Barry is very self-effacing in the first half of the season, but as the stakes get higher, Hader’s performance acquires additional gravity and emotional weight. And it’s worth noting that the show’s depiction of depression is both evocative and respectful.

If nothing else, Barry, who has increasing reservations about the deadly nature of his job, has some meaty motivation to bring to his acting class’ explorations of “Macbeth.”

Popular on Variety

TV Review: Bill Hader and Henry Winkler in 'Barry' on HBO

Comedy; 8 episodes (8 reviewed); HBO, 10:30 p.m. Sun. March 25. SXSW premiere Fri. March 9. 30 min.

Crew:

Executive producers, Bill Hader, Alec Berg.

Cast:

Bill Hader, Henry Winkler, Sarah Goldberg, Stephen Root, Glenn Fleshler, Paula Newsome, Anthony Carrigan, Darrell Britt-Gibson, D’Arcy Carden. 

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