In HBO’s “Barry,” Bill Hader defies expectations to perfectly blend laughs with tragedy

Comedy? Dramedy? Who cares.
Comedy? Dramedy? Who cares.
Image: HBO
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HBO’s newest TV series Barry has been called a dark comedy, black comedy, crime comedy, tragicomedy, funny drama, dramedy, crime drama, hitman comedy, twisted comedy, and, just now, by me, a “darkly funny tragic thriller”—a genre I just made up.

All of these labels are essentially saying versions of the same thing, which is that Barry blends elements of the comedy and drama genres together. It’s dark and disturbing and sinister and bloody, but it’s also witty, weird, and, at times, viscerally hysterical. It’s the sock and buskin combined into one strange face. A dark comedy. A dramedy. Whatever.

How you classify Barry matters far less than the fact that it’s an exceptional TV show, in no small part due to that ability to blur lines and defy genre expectation. The HBO series is the latest example in a growing trend of great television shows that seamlessly blend light with dark, humor with tragedy. Like these shows, Barry taps into something deeply human—the relentless juxtaposition of pleasure and despair that shapes the arc of our lives.

Barry follows a career-best Bill Hader as a depressed, aloof former US marine turned hitman who travels to Los Angeles for a hit—and winds up accidentally falling in love with acting. When he tracks his target into a Hollywood acting class (taught by the unparalleled Henry Winkler in a hilariously obnoxious role), Barry realizes that acting offers him a catharsis to his lifetime of killing people. The theater gives him a place to open up—an environment where he can be a part of the world again and feel good, even hopeful, about a future beyond assassinations.

Of course, whether or not someone like Barry can ever be redeemed is the central question of the HBO series. Can one have a life after so much death? Does one deserve to?

At its 30-minute runtime, Barry is technically a comedy for awards purposes. (The Emmys recently deemed that any show with episodes 30 minutes or less is a comedy, and anything longer is a drama.) So come awards season, it’ll be stacked up against shows like Modern Family and Silicon Valley, not The Handmaid’s Tale or Westworld, even though it’s thematically closer to the latter two series.

But that formal classification doesn’t prevent the show from really digging into Barry’s existential issues at a level we’ve come to expect of our most lofty and ambitious serialized dramas. Barry quietly bakes the pathos of Mad Men into a cake made with the buffoonery of Veep. It is far more emotionally exhausting than what you’d probably expect from a “comedy.”

And that’s the magic of it. Every laugh in Barry is earned because of how steeped in real-world drama it is. Sally (Sarah Goldberg), a driven, somewhat manic actress in the class who takes an interest in Barry, is abusively chewed out by Winkler’s Gene Cousineau (the aforementioned acting teacher) as he yells in great detail about how she’s a worthless, untalented hack. The scene is played for laughs, and because of Winkler’s delivery, we happily oblige. But it also masks a depth of sadness, one anyone who has pursued a dream only to come up short of expectations can relate to. Not only is Cousineau berating this young actress, but as a man in his 70s who teaches an LA theater class and still boasts about brief encounters with actual famous actors, he is also talking about himself.

And he’s talking about Barry, too. An Iraq combat veteran who returned to the US not knowing how to reintegrate into society, Barry has never been good at anything except pulling a trigger. He believes, not without good reason, that he’ll never amount to anything more than what he is: a contract killer.

The subject matter of Barry is far darker than many shows that are universally considered to be dramas. It makes any run-of-the-mill workplace, hospital, or legal drama look like the Marx Brothers by comparison. A series about a depressed hitman, who likely harbors some form of PTSD, is as serious as TV gets. But just like the show doesn’t allow the jokes to cover up a real exploration of human emotion, it doesn’t let the narrative’s gravity keep it from finding humor in unexpected places.

Barry doesn’t explicitly reference any current political or social upheaval, but it’s nonetheless a perfect show for today’s climate. Not totally unlike another HBO show, The Leftovers, which helped capture the chaos of a world we no longer recognize, Barry mirrors the unpredictability of life and our emotional responses to tragedy.

Decades of research tells us that humans use humor to cope with sadness. The creators of Barry—and Barry himself—are no different. When you finish the eight episode of Barry‘s debut season, you’ll have laughed, and you may have cried. But most importantly, you’ll have attained what Barry experiences the first time he steps on a stage, the afterglow of any good tragedy: catharsis.

So it doesn’t matter what genre you deem Barry worthy of. It embodies modern life’s inextricable link between comedy and drama, and that makes it essential entertainment.