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Breaking good

SNL alum and Tulsa native Bill Hader stars in genre-defying HBO series

Bill Hader in “Barry”

Graduating from “Saturday Night Live” to a Sunday night series, Bill Hader is pushing himself in “Barry” like never before.

A lynchpin of NBC’s iconic late-night show for eight years, Hader (a Cascia Hall grad) left in 2013 to branch out in film and television, testing his creative chops while still staying within his comedic wheelhouse. His IFC mockumentary series “Documentary Now!” with Fred Armisen, for example, is the best of its kind since peak Christopher Guest movies (“Waiting for Guffman,” “Best in Show”).

Now he plays an assassin, and it’s not all for laughs. But a lot of it is.

“Barry,” the new half-hour dark comedy from HBO (we previewed the first four of season one’s eight episodes), stars Hader as a former Marine-turned-hitman in existential crisis. His victims are categorically bad people—but so are his clients, and the nihilistic accumulation of killing has brought Barry to a psychic, spiritual breaking point.

He needs a new purpose, and he finds it in a dime-a-dozen L.A. acting class.

His latest target is a struggling actor. When Barry tracks down the poor shmuck at a small black box theater, he not only steps into an unfamiliar subculture but also, for him, a whole new world, one where people are affirmed for accessing their deepest, darkest emotions rather than for bottling them up.

This unexpected epiphany is the liberating path Barry has been yearning for, but the underworld keeps pulling him back in. Caught between the two, his new and old lives are at risk of colliding. That tension drives the series’ initial arc.

A broadcast version of this premise would likely play it all for schtick, i.e. safe. A basic cable take might add some drama to the crime world. But this is HBO, and “Barry” plays both in both.

At times this undercuts some intense life-threatening stakes, but it also inspires for some truly fresh comedy. Similarly, by going beyond sketch-level satire in the acting world, there ends up being some legitimate ennui there—and even cruelty, not just for Barry but also for his manipulative-yet-fragile love interest Sally (Sarah Goldberg) and acting coach on a power trip Gene (Henry Winkler).

The show’s Hollywood send-up, while fertile for hilarious deep cuts, isn’t just fodder for jokes. It’s a genuine character study of rejection. Similarly, the seedy dangers of organized crime aren’t there simply to earn gritty premium cable bona fides (although they do, with bloody, unflinching, even wince-inducing brutality), but to test comedic boundaries.

Barry’s obstacle in getting the life he wants is an L.A. branch of the Chechen mafia. Their paranoia complicates Barry’s patient, measured process in taking out the doofus actor, and their overreach ends up entangling Barry even further in their world, along with his handler Fuches (Stephen Root). What should’ve been a slick, covert job ends up pinging the LAPD’s radar.

Desperate to escape that trap, Barry plunges into the bubble of the acting class. Hader and co-creator/producer Alec Berg (“Silicon Valley,” “Seinfeld”) explore it with an indicting empathy, parodying the most vapid desperations and self-import of wannabe stars while still sympathizing with the core need for love and acceptance and understanding how the industry preys upon that vulnerability.

Goldberg humanizes Sally’s emotional and ethical volatility. Bubbly, outgoing, and the most talented of the class by far, she takes advantage of Barry’s naivete for her own selfish needs—but only as a consequence of Hollywood’s chewing her up and spitting her out daily.

Hader counters with angst of his own, but it’s balanced by humor that leans into Barry’s ignorance of film and theatre history, evident in his adorable butchering of Alec Baldwin’s classic “coffee’s for closers” Mamet monologue.

Winkler’s Gene, an acting coach with a decent sense of craft—but one who teaches through workshopping clichés, verbal abuse, and Machiavellian mind games—is the insecure lord of his own little fiefdom. Though occasionally effective, his ends-justify-the-means approach is a way to mask his own insecurities and boost his own ego.

It’d be unfair to call Winkler a revelation at this stage in his career (particularly after his brilliantly incompetent lawyer from “Arrested Development”), but the former Fonz displays a broad range with new shades, most notably as Gene pursues a romance with an investigating LAPD detective, employing some cheesy-but-charming moves.

If the acting milieu is what Hader and Berg know, it’s the mafia world where they feel energized by new possibilities. Chechen boss Goran (Glenn Fleshler) and his right-hand man NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan, a standout) are as funny as they are formidable, with Carrigan’s millennial take on the consigliere role flavored with playful bro-speak even as he applies gruesome torture.

Along with being the star, head writer, and producer, Hader adds director to his resume for the first time, helming the first three episodes. In total, Hader’s work here is assured in parts while nascent in others, but his artistic ambition is bold and genuine.

This is a solid start to a fascinating experiment. As Hader matures within and beyond his comfort zone, “Barry” is sure to grow right along with him.

“Barry” airs Sunday nights at 9:30 p.m. on HBO.

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