One of the most fruitful TV subgenres of the past few years has been the sadcom. Writing for Vulture, Jenny Jaffe defined a sadcom as a show about a "sad person trying." They follow irreparably flawed characters as they try and fail to be good people. They're funny, but they have more in common with The Sopranos than New Girl. Recent examples include BoJack Horseman, Rick and Morty and You're the Worst. And into that esteemed pantheon of misanthropy steps Barry, HBO's Bill Hader vehicle that premieres Sunday.
Hader — best known for his impressions and goofy characters like Stefon on Saturday Night Live — co-created the series with Silicon Valley's Alec Berg, directs multiple episodes of the first season and stars as Barry Berkman, a depressed hitman from the Midwest. He's a submissive former Marine whose experience in the military made him really good at killing people and not much else, and in his psychologically vulnerable state he was targeted by his "friend" Fuches (Stephen Root), who pimps him out as a killer-for-hire. Fuches sends him to Los Angeles to a do a job for the Chechen mob, and while there he finds what he wants to do with his life when he follows a target into an acting class. He signs up to follow his newfound dream, falls in love with his self-absorbed classmate Sally (Sarah Goldberg) and decides to grow a spine and leave his miserable life of crime behind. But his life has other ideas.
It's a persona-changing auteur performance from Hader, who shows impressive dramatic range, especially as the later episodes take Barry to darker and darker places. He gets some gut-punching scenes as Barry tries and fails to be the decent person he believes himself to be, and in comedic scenes, he uses a different, more low-key sense of humor than the sillier one he's known for.
The show's bigger laughs come from Henry Winkler as Gene Cousineau, an acting teacher whose preening self-regard doesn't overshadow his considerable pedagogical skills; and especially from Anthony Carrigan as Noho Hank, Barry's inscrutably chipper Chechen counterpart. Carrigan is terrific as a guy who's as likely to send Barry a cheesy inspirational meme as he is to send a rival gang a bullet in the mail as a threat. He's one of the show's best embodiments of the self-delusion most of the characters are infected with. They all think the world will give them what they think they deserve.
Barry has dreams of being a nylon-bomber-jacketed Hollywood hotshot, but reality has him brutally murdering people. Barry innovates in the sadcom format by adding graphic Sopranos-style violence, which both punctuates and underlines the banality of these characters' lives. Somebody gets his teeth filed while his torturers play Candy Crush and ignore his screams. In true sadcom fashion, the line between funny and soul-crushingly bleak is almost nonexistent.
Barry isn't exactly an easy hang, but it's smart, entertaining and funny. It breathes new life into the antihero story, which has been in a bit of a rut since Mad Men ended, and is the best live-action sadcom since Atlanta's first season. It will make you ponder the question of if it's ever really possible to start over. And at only eight episodes, it'll leave you wanting more.
Barry premieres Sunday, March 25 at 10:30/9:30c on HBO.