John P. Johnson/HBO
Kristen Baldwin
March 23, 2018 at 10:00 AM EDT

The key to enjoying Barry — and it is very enjoyable, in a variety of ways — is to go in with zero expectations. Though the half-hour series stars former Saturday Night Live favorite Bill Hader as a depressed hitman who decides to become an actor, the show delivers suprisingly more “dark” than “comedy,” and overall it elicits more heartbreak than hilarity.

Hader is phenomenal as Barry, a former Marine who channels his post-service misery into a job as a low-level contract killer offing “small-town hoods.” After an assignment leads him to an acting class in Los Angeles, Barry winds up on stage — and for the first time in a long time, he feels seen. Never mind that the class is taught by a barely-working actor (a perfectly pretentious Henry Winkler) and populated by wannabes who likely never will; all Barry sees is a close-knit group of friends united by a singular passion and purpose — two things he desperately yearns for.

 

 

What follows is a knotty thriller that spoofs everything from LA’s “everyone’s an actor” culture to cop dramas to the office politics of the Chechen Mafia. The 8-episode first season (premiering Sunday at 10:30 p.m.) is rife with sly visual gags and delightful performances, including Stephen Root as Barry’s manipulative mentor, and Gotham’s Anthony Carrigan as a well-mannered mobster named NoHo Hank. The real revelation, though, is Hader, whose Barry is a tangle of sadness, anger, naiveté and yearning. In one of the show’s many acts of subversion, the monologue that earns Barry entry into the acting class ticks every “for your Emmy consideration” box — but it should also establish Hader as a legitimate awards contender.

It’s fine to come to Barry for the laughs (there are plenty) but don’t be surprised if you wind up coming back for the unexpected, and unexpectedly moving, character study. It’s Barry’s sad search for direction — and his often-thwarted mission to reinvent himself — that elevates this story to something more than a typical TV caper. B+

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