‘Barry’ and the Arrival of the Millennial Anti-hero

Almost half of millennials say they feel lonely.

Healthcare provider Cigna ranked thousands of Americans using the UCLA Loneliness Scale and found an overwhelming number of respondents say they lack companionship, their relationships aren’t meaningful and they feel isolated from others. An NPR article summarized this loneliness as “a chronic ache, affecting [younger generation’s] daily lives and sense of well-being.”

Add “but funny, too” on the end of that sentence and you have the tagline for HBO’s Barry.

Barry stars Bill Hader as an isolated, mid-30s millennial who joins an acting class in search of human connection. Barry hates his job, has no friends, and feels used and unloved by the few human connections in his life. He wants desperately to love and be loved, but he’s lost the capacity for either.

Oh, and Barry’s a contract killer.

In the middle of a hit, Barry stumbles into a Los Angeles acting class, and its “we’re all a family” mantra captures his heart. He decides to join. Of course, having drained all empathy from his soul, Barry’s a terrible actor, and the show’s best moments are when real flashes of human emotion—like grief over a friend’s death—spill out of him in the middle of an exercise. The class finds it brilliant.

If there were any doubts regarding Bill Hader’s acting chops (and there shouldn’t have been), Barry puts them to rest. Hader crushes this role, burying 90 percent of the outsized SNL personality that rocketed him to fame, often conveying loneliness, longing, depression and confusion through his eyes alone. He’s offset by some hilarious supporting characters—especially a never-better Henry Winkler as acting coach Gene Cousineau—but Hader is all quiet desperation.

Though its premise might tempt comparisons to the quirkier side of something like Grosse Pointe Blank, life in Barry is deadly serious. The stakes matter. And while the show struggled to perfect this tonal balance in the first few episodes, the back half of season one—the finale of which was Sunday—unlocked the brilliance lurking within. Really, the final three episodes vaulted Barry from “interesting experiment” to one of TV’s best shows.

That being said, Barry is yet another white, male, morally conflicted anti-hero. We’ve seen a lot of these. Breaking Bad, Mad Men and The Sopranos are three of the best shows in television history, but they spawned an era of wannabe serious dramas involving brilliant and misunderstood men who treat those around them like dirt.

Tony Soprano, Walter White and Don Draper are television’s poster children of toxic masculinity: wounded boys-turned-men who stave off feelings of impotence by gaining power over others, especially women. These anti-heroes are chasing career advancement (in different ways) as a means to self-worth. Tony and Don are womanizers, and Walter would be if he had even trace amounts of sex appeal or charisma. In effect, these guys are the boomer generation, chasing the affection absent from their home life.

It’s fair to ask if, however good Barry might be, another repressed white male is really what we need in an age where white men are lashing out against perceived repressions left and right. In a time when a bunch of emasculated angry white men gather with torches in Charlottesville, and when xenophobic calls to protect America from “the others” loom large, a show about a “marginalized” white male anti-hero feels too close to the present, but Barry is not a simple retread of alpha males running amok.

It’s true that Barry is neck-deep in existential ennui, committed to a career that destroys him, and self-justifying even on his worst behavior, but he’s not a Draper, Soprano or White. Barry is attempting to leave a powerful career to become an actor, for crying out loud. He isn’t looking for power—he has that in spades—but for community.

In Barry, the acting class is a place of belonging. For our hero, they conjure off-kilter but sweet fantasies about calm, domestic bliss with his love interest, Sally (in fact, she shares more in common with Don Draper than Barry does). Barry is just as lonely as Draper, White, and Soprano, but Barry is the only one with a shot at articulating that. Really, the whole thrust of the show is how he’s on a journey to articulate that. The older anti-heroes can’t admit their sadness, even to themselves, but in an anonymous survey, Barry would be quick to admit he feels deeply, existentially alone.

Barry then is the white male anti-hero of the millennial generation. He longs for a committed relationship, he’s unsure of his career path, and he’s very, very alone. It begs the question: If Tony, Walter and Don are cultural signifiers of our current culture, what kind of culture will a generation of Barrys create?

If the show is any indication, it’ll be a lonely one.

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