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With HBO's 'Barry,' Bill Hader Presents His Finest Work Yet


During his eight years on "Saturday Night Live," Bill Hader played everyone from Clint Eastwood to former Chinese President Hu Jintao. But in his new HBO series "Barry," Hader may have created his most challenging role - a hit man who wants to be an actor. The show debuts Sunday, and NPR TV critic Eric Deggans has this review.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: The best new comedy on television is also the darkest comedy on television. I'm talking about "Barry," a new series about an expert assassin who feels adrift in life until he follows a potential mark into an acting class and realizes his true calling, which doesn't go over too well with the guy who arranges all of Barry's jobs and handles his money, a fatherly figure named Fuchs played by Stephen Root. Barry tries to convince Fuchs he can be a part-time hit man.


BILL HADER: (As Barry) Well, you know, they told me a very small percentage of actors actually make a living acting. So I just figured, you know, I'd do night hits or...

STEPHEN ROOT: (As Fuchs) You want to have a hobby or something, you can take up painting. Hitler painted. John Wayne Gacy painted. It never got in the way of what they were doing.

HADER: (As Barry) These are professional actors. And they're the real deal. And they say I got something.

ROOT: (As Fuchs) You want to go out there and try to burn a guy and have him say, hey, there's that guy from the chicken commercial?

HADER: (As Barry) I don't know if I do commercials.

DEGGANS: Barry's guide into acting is the class' teacher, Gene, played with ferocious flair by Henry Winkler. In this role, Winkler is a delight as a potbellied poser who's so pretentious he can't see his mild-mannered student for who he really is.


HENRY WINKLER: (As Gene) Barry, you want to be an actor, you better get out of your own way.

HADER: (As Barry) OK.

WINKLER: (As Gene) Life is about taking a risk, making the unsafe choice. All right, here's a little story just to illustrate. I once auditioned for the guy that robbed the house on "Full House." And I carried a loaded Beretta with me into the audition just to feel the weight of it.

HADER: (As Barry) Wow. Did you get the part?

WINKLER: (As Gene) No. They freaked out.

DEGGANS: One of the core jokes here is that Barry's actually a terrible actor. He's torn because the one thing he's good at - killing people - is also killing his soul, and the thing he really wants to do is beyond his grasp. Hader says he was inspired to create this show by the terrible stage fright he endured while performing on "Saturday Night Live." He's invested a lot of himself in the show, co-writing and directing three episodes while also serving as an executive producer on the whole series. He builds a slightly absurd world where everyone is a little too thick-headed and self-centered to suspect that this friendly, slightly goofy military veteran is also a cold-blooded killer. Even when Barry confesses his situation to Gene, the acting teacher thinks he's delivering a monologue.


HADER: (As Barry) You know, when I got back from Afghanistan, I was really depressed. You know, I couldn't leave my house for months. And this friend of my dad's, he's - he helped me out. And he gave me a purpose. I know there's more to me than that.

WINKLER: (As Gene) What's that from?

HADER: (As Barry) What?

WINKLER: (As Gene) Are you telling me that was an improvisation? The story's nonsense, but there's something to work with.

DEGGANS: On the surface, "Barry" satirizes a lot of usual suspects - Hollywood actors, dimwitted criminals, insensitive cops and veterans looking for their next rush of adrenaline. But it's all filtered through the lens of Hader's unique character, Barry Berkman, a likable psychopath who keeps you rooting for him even when the story turns down a dark path and he does terrible things. "Barry" is a series where Bill Hader confirms he's much more than a mugging sketch comic. He's a compelling actor with a unique voice who's created one of the best new shows of the year. I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMEFE'S "STUTTER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.

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