Nathan Barley is like treasure. It’s a British sitcom that aired ten years ago, with six sweet episodes eviscerating urban tech-chic culture. I’m talking diamond-hard satire, the kind that makes you laugh with the bitter taste of bile in the back of your throat, and re-shapes your view of the world in the process. Before we had the word “hipster,” before YouTube existed, before smartphones and Facebook and Twitter, Nathan Barley drove a hot iron spike into the heart of our narcissistic, trivia obsessed, self-promotional, media-laden times.
But nobody seems to have heard of it.
On the North American side of the pond, anyway, the show never took off. I’m not saying that it’s as popular as One Direction over yonder, but Barley is respected enough that its tenth anniversary prompted an insightful and in-depth essay in The Guardian arguing for its continued cultural relevance and downright spooky prescience. Despite being a decade old, the show is just as cutting today. If you replaced the flip-phones with iPhones and tightened everyone’s trousers the show could’ve been shot in 2015 instead of 2005.
The basic setup of Nathan Barley is less about plot and more about characters and setting.
The cameras follow a constellation of characters that orbit a fictional style magazine called “SugarApe,” a thinly veiled reference to Vice magazine, as they cavort around the fauxhemian post-industrial backdrop of East London. The main characters are Dan Ashcroft (played by Julian Barratt), a columnist who thinks he’s too smart for the gutter; his sister Claire (Claire Keelan), an up-and-coming documentarian making a gritty exposé about the homeless; and Nathan Barley (Nicholas Burns), an insecure, clueless, relentlessly inventive “self-facilitating media node” – a.k.a. a trust-fund kid with his own office loft and website. Throughout the series, Barley ingratiates himself into the SugarApe scene in much the same way digital superseded print media, by being louder, faster, and out of control.
Then there’s a chorus of bit characters, whose pedigree comes off a bit like bragging. Benedict Cumberbatch plays an anxious accountant, Richard Ayoade is one of the legion of SugarApe hangers-on, Ben Whishaw is Barley’s mousey sidekick, and even Noel Fielding is there as the Ashcrofts’ experimental musician roommate.
In case you’re not counting, that’s all of Mighty Boosh, one half of Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place, significant portions of The IT Crowd, Submarine, Skyfall, I’m Not There, Cloud Atlas, and Benedict motherfucking Cumberbatch. We’re talking triple-A acting, comedy, and downright creativity here. It’s a veritable nexus of young British talent converging upon this show, ages before they cracked the mainstream.
Under the watchful eye of director/writer Chris Morris (as in, the guy responsible forThe Brass Eye, The Day Today, and Four Lions) and writer/creator Charlie Brooker, the whole thing came together like crochet.
Almost every character is despicable in their own way. Nathan, in particular, gleefully eschews all standards of taste in favor of whatever’s socially advantageous. His insecure radar rabidly scans for signifiers of cool in an attempt to instantly mimic it. I can’t help but see shades of my own insecurities in this behavior, however rarefied and exaggerated for comedic effect it may be.
The thing is, maybe the satire is too raw. It hinges upon the aesthetic cues of low-fi web culture, photoshopped animations of monkeys masturbating, quick edits, and grainy film stock – for those who are fully embedded in the culture of memes and reddit, this is par for the course. And so are the attitudes within. Scanning any anonymous message board will net you a bucket of Barley-esque aphorisms. If that’s the way you actually think, then the show won’t seem like satire, it will seem more like a try-hard mockumentary, and thus fall short of eliciting that mirror of art. Cognitive dissonance cannot emerge for those who accept whole-hog the moral conventions of that lifestyle.
On the other hand, for folks that find the copypasta aesthetic repugnant, they are liable to be straight disgusted by Barley and everyone else in the show, seeing the whole enchilada as an example of more misogyny, more meaningless hedonism, and more rhetorical garbage bastardizing the English language while riding around on little plastic trucks.
Appreciating the show demands that you get down with its style, but not buy in to its ethos; you have to see enough of yourself in the characters to feel uncomfortable, but not so much that you actually root for any of them. It’s an interesting balance of detachment and engagement, and not one that we are often called upon to maintain while digesting televisual humor.
But that’s the brilliance of Barley. There’s a little Nathan in all of us, a little Dan, and a dash of Claire. There’s something redeemable about Nathan’s irrepressible energy, Dan’s moral dilemmas, and Claire’s vision. If you catch that bug of partial sympathy, then laughing at the show becomes an act of laughing at yourself, which can be hella uncomfortable given the explicit situations of Barley. At the same times, it means that you cannot laugh with the show, because you can never be completely removed from the object of ridicule. This dual perspective is unsettling, in a way that is utterly unique and bizarre. There’s no “Get Out of Jail Free” card with Nathan Barley. Once you start to see its machinations, nothing seems quite so simple again.
True satire inspires a revaluation of ethics, of how we go about living life and establishing the worth of our actions. By complicating our relationship with the despicable, Nathan Barley prompts the introspection necessary to begin that process. That may be brilliant, but brutal self-inspection is seldom a crowd pleaser. When you combine it with the melange of vices we have access to in the twenty-first century, it can become downright squeamish, if not unpalatable.
This no-holds-barred tendency in Barley may be too hardcore for mass appeal, straight up. But if you’re interested in some pounding, chainsaw-screaming, uncut satire that holds up after ten years of light speed cultural overproduction, then check this shit out. It’s well futile.