When Nathan Barley first aired back in 2005 I was a fully paid up member of the Chris Morris fan club, having loved his work for over a decade ever since The Day Today and his BBC Radio 1 music shows, and upon the release of Brass Eye, Blue Jam and Jam that adoration became slightly obsessive, the man could do no wrong in my eyes. But even though Nathan Barley was met by derision by many I still enjoyed it a great amount, sure, it wasn’t Morris at his very best but in a review (that I’m thankful is no longer online) I described it as “Ridiculously superior to nearly every other comedy show around at the moment, and for that reason alone it should be applauded.”
Admittedly that was based on the first episode alone but after watching the rest I was fond of the series as a whole and up until this week would have defended it to anyone who might have suggested that it wasn’t all that. But after binging the series over the last few days I’ve very mixed feelings about it, some of it still works and there’s enough funny moments overall for me to recommend it as being worth watching, but I have to confess I’d do so cautiously and would include many caveats.
Set in the hipster filled world of Shoreditch in London it centres around two main characters, firstly the titular Nathan Barley (Nicholas Burns) who originated in Charlie Brooker’s fake tv listings parody website Tv Go Home in a fictional show called Cunt, where each week he was obnoxiously self-absorbed and desperate to seem cool, though the tv version softens the character so rather than being a full on monstrous fuck he’s more of a ridiculous twat. The second main character is Julian Barratt’s Dan Ashcroft, a journalist for the Vice-esque magazine Sugar Ape that’s all but renamed Suga Rape in the first episode, which should go to show what an abhorrent publication it is. Prior to the series beginning Ashcroft’s penned an article called Rise Of The Idiots which mocks Barley and those like him, and despises pretty much everything about his life, yet if anything is a far shittier character as he’s far more self aware and yet still treats others shockingly poorly.
A satire of hipsters and media types, Morris and co-writer Brooker highlighted just how painfully awful pretty much all of the characters were during the series, Barley’s sort of friend Pingu (Ben Wishaw) is the only one who doesn’t do anything that is actively hateful, but then he’s not actually in it much bar the last episode. Otherwise even those who might not initially seem that bad like Dan’s sister Claire (Claire Keelan) show themselves to be open to exploiting others, and the worst characters are bleakly abhorrent. A comedy with only awful people in it is often no bad thing (as Seinfeld proved) but the humour here only sometimes works, and given how smart Morris and Brooker have proven themselves to be over the years it’s in places a surprisingly misguided show.
To start with the positive side of things, there are many elements which do work effectively. Morris and Brooker satirise the media obsessed idiots in all manner of very funny ways, portraying them as self-obsessed bullies whose desperation to be seen as cool is all they truly care about. They’re childish twats, incapable of being aware of how much offence the dribbling rubbish that spews from their mouths causes, and the fact that they constantly contradict themselves is another sign of how vapid and uninspired their every thoughts is, which is often responsible for many a very funny line or scene.
That viciousness also extends to the artists portrayed in the series, to the obviously meant to be Dave Stewart character that is Doug Rocket (David Hoyle) who inanely dreams about making a concept album about paper, to piss obsessed artist 15Peter20 (Iddo Goldberg) whose photographs of urinating celebrities are pretty funny even if he has nothing else of value to offer the world. And of course Nathan Barley is torn apart throughout the series, a trust fund kid who’s beyond spoilt and only seems to exist to profit from the misery of others, be it the shitty prank videos he makes that abuses his friendship with Pingu to his hosting of the most depressing of videos featuring the homeless and the poor.
Morris and Brooker don’t let central character Dan Ashcroft off the hook either, as mentioned he may be far more self-aware than everyone else (at times at least) yet in pretty much every episode he takes advantage of either those he supposedly cares about (Claire, then) or allows himself to be manipulated by the idiots that surround him, his editor Jonathan Yeah (Charlie Condou, majestic throughout) especially, and the irony of the way his life plays out is an often darkly funny one.
The show also contains some great background gags as well, like the dumb but fun posters at the tv production company Claire visits which advertise series like “The Nazi Experiments In Colour”, “When Surgeons Crack Up” and “Dadwars”. Also bloody great are the photos of hairdresser Nikolai (Kevin Eldon) and his cat, and the examples we get of musician Doug Rocket’s work like “Email: The Musical” which stars “Ross Kemp As Pixel” are gloriously funny. That description applies to some of Nathan’s videos as well (though by no means all of them), and the survival horror game that Pingu plays in the final episode, Labour Party Conference, is filled with some great jokes and I doubt there’s many who wouldn’t want to play it in real life.
But on the downside parts of the series are depressingly poor, with some of the cringe comedy just too painful to watch, to the extent it stops being funny after a time, like Dan’s interview with the Sunday Times. It works initially as we see that Dan’s woefully unprepared for the interview but as it goes on and he fails to answer any question in a believable manner it just seems a bit ridiculous, that someone as smart as he couldn’t at least partially bluff his way through, even if it was just by re-hashing past ideas / articles he’s already written. Dan’s a thoughtless twat on occasion, sure, but in this scene he comes across as being stupider than Nathan is and it’s not convincing in the slightest.
Some of Nathan’s all round twattery in each episode is slightly weak as well, the kind of humour where you can see what they were trying to get at but which won’t make you laugh, the scene where Nathan raps while attempting to go down on Claire being a glaring example of this and for me it’s a step too far, as however idiotic the character is even he must be aware that she’s not enjoying his musical efforts. But worst of all is his storyline in the fifth episode, which is tiresomely misjudged and often just plain bad. I’d normally never be so dismissive of anything Morris or Brooker have written but the way it handles the topic of sexual abuse is horribly misguided, it’s something that Morris had touched upon before with the Brass Eye Special but that was a satire of the way the media handled the subject, whereas this just seems exploitative of the woman in question and so tediously unpleasant.
Revolving around Claire wanting a model called Mandy to star in her documentary when she sees how fucked up she is, there’s shit jokes about how she was supposedly raped by her Uncle when eight years old, except she wasn’t as she doesn’t even have an Uncle, and I’ve no idea who the target of the joke is meant to be other than Mandy herself, a drug addict with an enormous amount of problems who it seems truly mean to take the piss out of. At one point midway through receiving a blow job from her Nathan is told on the phone that she’s only 13, and so orgasms instantly and the shock humour is utterly bleak, and I can’t understand why it was supposed to be funny, we already know Nathan’s a loathsome shit and to discover he gets off on the idea of having oral sex from someone so young isn’t funny at all, despite the fact that the way the camera lingers on his orgasming face suggests it’s a scene which is clearly meant to be amusing.
It’s not made any better when we soon learn that Mandy’s actually eighteen either, and equally as unfunny is a part where Claire films her in a cot singing “Bad To Have A Bad Uncle”, which is a rare example of a song by Morris that is uninspired and lyrically unimaginative. When the episode finally comes to an end it features all of the Sugar Ape journalists celebrating the fact that Nathan supposedly committed statutory oral rape, and at least this time the joke is at the expense of these cunts, but it’s a miserable and rubbish one that’s just not funny, once again we know these people are fucking ghastly after all and there was no need to hammer the point home.
In the same episode there’s a subplot with Dan where he wanks off a supposedly straight guy for a magazine article he’s been commissioned to write, that’s not offensive at least but it isn’t amusing either, and ultimately doesn’t go anywhere and ends with a bizarre scene that doesn’t seem to have any point to it, or any reason to be seen as amusing either. I would love to sit down with Morris and Brooker and talk about it as perhaps I’m missing something, but having watched it twice it really does come across poorly and the kind of thing you’d expect to have been written by a drunken teenager, not two critically acclaimed individuals who have produced amazing work elsewhere.
The final episode isn’t any great shakes either, at least it doesn’t contain anything as shitty as the previous episode but if that’s the best thing you can say about something then it’s truly not a good sign. To be fair it has a couple of very funny moments with the aforementioned “Labour Party Conference” game, the panicked tv producer’s line “Is something brilliant happening” is fantastic, and Doug Rocket proved himself to be the gift which keeps giving when he talks about an exchange he had with the ghost of John Lennon’s head, but the rest is disappointing in the extreme. Nathan pranking Pingu, and Dan taking advantage of that, feels tiresome, and Doug Rocket’s storyline doesn’t even come to an end and so feels utterly pointless, as if Morris and Brooker ultimately didn’t quite know what they wanted to say about the character other than “This guy’s a bit of an idiot”.
If you want to remain having fond memories of the show it’s probably best if you only watch the first four episodes then, it’s still not aged well in certain parts and the cringe factor in places is extreme, but overall there’s a fair amount to enjoy. It doesn’t have the density of humour that Morris’s work did prior to Nathan Barley, and it’s a little one note, but the performances are routinely superb, it contains some great examples of Morris’s trademark wordplay, and at least for a while it’s an intriguingly horrifying view of some of the most tedious examples of humanity.