Hollywood is a land of make believe inhabited by people who pretend to be someone else. Any time a TV show tackles the struggles of actors, there is an Inception quality to it - you have real-life stars portraying not-yet-famous characters next to real-life not-yet-famous actors trying to break through and make it big. In Barry, which wrapped its first season on Sunday, the added wrinkle is that among the strivers at a community theater acting troupe is a hit man who made his way to La La Land to kill one of their classmates.
The season unfolds on the outskirts of Los Angeles, on stage and among the low rent criminals Barry meets. The two worlds intersect because dimwitted blonde Ryan Madison is sleeping with the wife of a Chechen mob boss named Goran. Barry is contracted to kill Ryan but can’t go through with it after accidentally walking in on an acting class led by one Gene M. Cousineau (played with brio by Henry Winkler, who walks off with every scene he is in) and befriending Ryan and his fellow classmates.
You quickly realize everyone in Barry is D-list. Gene is a past-his-prime actor still auditioning for one line roles and whose main career achievement appears to be a coke-fueled performance of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night not in the three hours it usually takes, but less than forty minutes. Nevertheless, Gene is beloved by his actors, a motley assortment of fringe talent whose acting credits extend no further than You Tube videos and a CSI cameo as a dead body. The Chechen Mafia types think it’s ‘big time’ to send a bullet to a rival gang but Goran, and his goofy number two, Noho Hank, conduct business over phones tapped by the police, record their own criminal behavior for reasons unknown, and Hank sends Barry texts with emojis more appropriate for a twelve-year-old than a cold-blooded killer.
It is all low rent, like the bric-a-brac that sprung up around Disneyland in Anaheim because Walt was not smart enough to buy the adjacent land (a problem he rectified in Florida). The theater troupe runs through scenes from movies while Gene toggles between boredom and ferocity (his takedown of Barry’s performance of the scene made famous by Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross might be the single funniest in the show’s eight episodes) while the police officers who investigate Ryan’s murder have a Keystone Kops aspect to them. The lead detective, Janice, is seduced by Gene’s hammy come-ons while her underlings generally fumble about until the case breaks late in the season.
As Barry’s sort-of love interest, Sarah Goldburg’s Sally Reed comes closest to getting her brass ring. She desperately wants to nail her role as Macbeth in front of an agent who she hopes will sign her so she can then dump him when she becomes more successful (hey, it worked for Emma Stone). While she has the unfortunate experience of getting dropped by another manager who she won’t sleep with, she is a ladder-climber, dropping Barry when he becomes jealous of her flirtations with a guy who voices Pinnochio and muscling her way past her classmates for the starring role in their Shakespeare production only to circle back to Barry when his grief over killing a Marine buddy spills over into his Macbeth performance with her.
Overall, the show has an off-kilter feel. Through the first half of the eight episode season, Barry’s world weary assassin is reminiscent of John Cusack in Gross Pointe Blank. Bill Hader is more sad sack, his facial expressions elastic in joy when Sally is with him but often puzzled and muted when trying to cope with his handler, Fuches, and the Chechens. The introduction of Chris (the Marine Corps buddy) midway through the season is the pivot point that takes the show in a much darker direction. Barry, Chris, and two other former Marines are enlisted to knock out Goran’s Bolivian competition, but their mission fails. The two Marines are killed in a shootout and Barry murders Chris when he threatens to go to the police, staging the scene as a suicide even though Barry had met the man’s wife and child.
Barry appears to wrap things in a neat Hollywood bow when Barry murders Goran and his henchmen and the police pin the whole mess on a gang war with the Bolivians, Ryan (the deceased actor) and one of the Marines who died in the shootout with the Bolivians. But in an odd coda scene, we flash forward in time. Barry and Sally are together, working on a two-person play (directed by Gene) and spending a weekend with Gene and Janice at Gene’s retreat. Janice notices Barry’s surname is listed as “Block” not “Berkman” on the play’s poster and her suspicions are further aroused when Gene reminisces about the impromptu monologue about being a hit man Barry did to get into Gene’s acting class. When Janice sneaks out to look up “Barry Block” on Facebook, she ties the whole caper together, realizing it was Barry who appeared on a grainy video of the original murder scene. He confronts her and tries to talk her out of arresting him. When she demurs, he kills her, promising to be better as the show fades to black.
Huh? Barry has been renewed for a second season so I suppose this loose end will also be tied up, or maybe it was all just a dream (there were several such sequences in past episodes). This is Hollywood after all.
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