Nathan Barley Review
Where do you even begin with a review of a show like Nathan Barley? In a sense, it defies criticism. The whole joke is so one-note and the frame of reference so specific that this truly is a case of "you either get it or you don't". The show sees Chris Morris, the man behind the famed The Day Today, Brass Eye and Jam trying his hand at a sitcom, with mixed results. The subject of his lampooning is the obnoxious Nathan Barley (Nicholas Burns), a character from Guardian columnist Charlie Brooker's infamous "TV Go Home" web site - a sort of parody of the Radio Times and the usual line-up of British television (indeed, Brooker collaborated on the writing process). Barley and his crew of "idiots" (the original TV Go Home web site used a far less G-rated word to describe them) are the sort of people who have the latest mobile phones because they are the latest, equipped with loud, annoying ring tones because they are loud and annoying. They go to raucous parties, say controversial things for the sake of being controversial, and generally latch on to all sorts of ideologies and fads that they don't actually understand. In doing so, they believe that they are being incredibly clever, when in fact they are doing nothing more than showing themselves to be completely devoid of any form of intelligence.
If all this sounds familiar, then it should. In a sense, this would appear to be precisely the cult that have latched itself on to Morris' work, proclaiming him to be a genius and the saviour of television. For many people, his work on The Day Today and Brass Eye was appealing simply because it was filled with off-beat, non-sequitur humour and controversial subject matter. In turn, these people tend to believe that, by parroting the same material, they too are being original and thought-provoking, completely missing the subtler political and social comments that Morris was making. With the notorious paedophilia Brass Eye special, for instance, the vast majority either reviled it for (in their eyes) using a deadly serious subject for a crude joke, or applauded it for daring to break so many taboos, but very few were able to actually grasp the show's true purpose: to expose the distastefulness of the media circus that is Britain's love-hate relationship with paedophilia. These people are the Nathan Barleys of the world: in the second episode, Barley attends a rave, where he bellows out a list of names associated with current affairs (MP3, Enron, George W. Bush, and so on) and raps about people falling from the World Trade Centre and having sex on the way down. In Barley's eyes, simply uttering these catchphrases and showing an awareness of these individuals and events proves just how clever he is. And the sad thing is, he is surrounded by devoted followers who lap it all up like he's some sort of genius.
At the other end of the spectrum is Dan Ashcroft (Julian Barratt), a journalist who writes about the "idiots" and their fallacies. Much to his chagrin, he is a big hit with said idiots, Barley among them, who can't seem to grasp the fact that he is writing about them. It's not hard to see Dan as a stand-in for Morris: a world-weary writer who can't quite believe that his work has been embraced by the very people that he set out to criticise. In fact, an argument can be made for Nathan Barley being the Charlie Brooker to Chris Morris' Dan Ashcroft. In the first episode, one of the idiots declares that he thinks "Nathan Barley is the online Ashcroft" - Brooker has often been described as "the online Morris", both by his supporters, who believe them both to be equally gifted satirists, and by his critics, who consider him to be copying Morris' style without grasping the point behind it. One has to wonder if Morris is intentionally making this connection and, by portraying Barley as a surrogate Brooker, once again having the last laugh.
With all the scene-setting out of the way, let's move on to the merits of the show itself as a piece of entertainment. How much you get out of it will depend on how familiar you are with the sub-culture being satirised, because, when it comes down to it, there isn't much else in the show. Homer Simpson once said, quite perceptively, "It's funny because it's true", and that old adage certainly applies to Nathan Barley. Yes, it's true that you may still get a laugh out of the odd non-sequiturs Morris loves using so much (his greatest gift, in my opinion, is his ability to boil down a fad or quirk of his subject matter to its lowest common denominator and use it in a way that draws attention to its absurdity - for example his lampooning of the visual language of news programmes in The Day Today), but they are less concentrated than in his earlier work. Nathan Barley's humour is completely deadpan, and the whole thing progresses without Morris so much as tossing a bone to the casual observer. If you don't recognise the types being portrayed, you won't find it funny - it's as simple as that. It is possible to make an argument for this being an extremely cheap form of comedy, simply presenting a situation as fact and expecting people to laugh because they find it recognisable (this is perhaps my biggest criticism of shows like Family Guy, which present pop culture references in place of actual jokes and expect people to laugh not because there is something inherently funny about them but because they recognise them).
That said, a lot of the time it is extremely observant. One episode, for instance, features an absolutely ruthless parody of modern art, presenting it at its pretentious worst: the curator, 15Peter20, has a collection of his laptops, entitled, appropriately enough, My Laptops, as the centrepiece of his exhibition. He also specialises in taking photographs of people urinating, and professes to be making a deep political statement by doing this - how often do we hear of modern artists who believe, by simply assembling a collection of crude ideas and images, that they are somehow being insightful? Another frequent target is modern music. The rave in the aforementioned second episode, for instance, features an utterly mind-boggling piece that I can only describe as "techno bagpipes". Morris, of course, had a hand in crafting the show's soundtrack, and once again he cuts right to the chase, creating material that sounds genuinely authentic while at the same time lampooning its sheer ridiculousness. Of course, in his own particular way, Morris is arguably biting the hand that feeds him, laying into the vices that many people traditionally associate with the stereotypical Channel 4 viewer.
As a reaction against these specific sub-cultures, therefore, Nathan Barley is reasonably effective. When it comes to presenting an engaging narrative, however, it is almost a complete failure. The show's audience was always going to be fairly limited, given the narrow scope of its subject matter, but Morris paints his characters in such an unfavourable light that there is not a single individual in the show that the audience can actually relate to. Everyone is so downright obnoxious that it's impossible to root for anyone, and as a result events have a habit of passing by without the audience being able to form any sort of emotional engagement. Even Claire (Claire Keelan), Dan's sister and the only character in the series who could possibly be labelled as "normal", is a fairly unlikeable individual who spends most of the time sulking and treating people to moody glares and eyebrow shifts.
In a sense, with this review, I've probably walked right into Morris' trap and elevated the show to something that it is not, claiming it to be a wonderfully insightful piece of social commentary when in fact it's simply a slice of Friday night entertainment. The truth probably lies somewhere in between, but while Nathan Barley is, to me, a clever piece of work that manages to utterly annihilate its targets by using their own quirks and lingo to illustrate their stupidity, it is ultimately an uneven piece and one that is as likely to infuriate as it is to entertain. In a way, its satire is so effective that it runs the risk of becoming just as annoying as its targets. It's certainly not up to the level of Brass Eye, that's for sure.
Nathan Barley is presented anamorphically in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio. The series was shot on interlaced video, but post-processed to deinterlace it and add fake grain, telecine wobble and film dirt. The results are surprisingly realistic, even if the telltale jagged diagonal lines that result from deinterlacing do rear their ugly heads at times. The single biggest flaw of this transfer is the encoding: the source material is grainy, and as a result of cramming nearly three hours' worth of material, plus at least an hours' worth of bonus materials, on the one disc, a moderate level of compression artefacts can often be glimpsed, particularly on a large screen. Otherwise, I can't find any fault with this transfer. It has an intentionally cheap, crummy look to it and the DVD faithfully replicates this. If I had been in charge of producing this set, though, I would definitely have split it over two discs.
The sound is vanilla Dolby Stereo, but the excellent audio design makes good use of the dual channels. The dialogue is not always intelligible, but this is because the actors tend to mumble their lines or speak at a lower level than the intrusive music (an intentional touch, I assume). Thankfully, clear, easy to read subtitles have been provided, for both the episodes themselves and the extras.
Chris Morris has a habit of confounding his viewers when it comes to DVD bonus materials. Brass Eye featured a commentary on the "Drugs" episode apparently comprised of a discussion between homeless people who were plied with booze and made to watch the show with no prior knowledge of what they were about to see, while Jam contained such useful features as the ability to watch the series shrunk to a tiny window surrounded by a thick black border. Nathan Barley features more inanity, but it is thankfully entertaining inanity. In addition to providing the complete, unadulterated 40-minute Pilot (presented without any of the post-processing to which the series itself was subjected and featuring an amalgamation of a number of scenes and plotlines from various episodes), there are two separate sections entitled Sounds and Video.
Sounds begins with an alternate audio track on the fifth episode: a Redub which replaces the voices of Nathan, Dan and the coke-addled girl Nathan hooks up with. The results are hilarious, as Nathan becomes decidedly more posh, Dan becomes a soft-spoken Welshman and the young lady suddenly sounds like a 70-year-old woman. I suppose you could argue that it's all a bit pointless, but if you ever wanted to hear someone who sounds suspiciously like the Queen Mother say "I could put your willy in my mouth and blow on it", this should be right up your street. Sounds also includes a Radio section, which features two audio-based features involving various idiots discussing all manner of subjects.
Video contains six Deleted Scenes - one for each episode - which range from extensions of various scenes to alternate takes. The best of these is, without a doubt, the extended version of Claire's interview with Doug Rocket, an extremely fey musician who believes that John Lennon has passed his torch to him. The original Channel 4 trailers are also included for each episode, under Trails. Finally, Galleries is split into three sections: a textual reproductuon of 40 pages' worth of Cunt (the fictional show in TV Go Home that spawned the character of Nathan Barley); a number of stills which feature both pictures of the cast and reproductions of various visual elements used as props in the show; and credits for the DVD, and the cast and crew.
Also included, as a DVD-ROM feature, is a reproduction of Trashbat.co.ck, Nathan Barley's web site. This includes information on the Wasp T12 Speechtool (his mobile phone), as well as the same images that were included in the DVD-based gallery (with options to enlarge them or save them as JPGs).
Finally, the DVD also comes with a small 48-page booklet from Nathan Barley himself. Comprised of a collection of his thoughts, photographs and graphic manipulations, this is very much in keeping with the humour of the show itself and as a result more than a little befuddling.
It's not Chris Morris' best work by a long shot, but Nathan Barley is an amusing enough if one-note show for those who "get it". Those who don't will wonder what all the fuss is about, but those who do should be more than happy with both the presentation of the episodes themselves and the array of bonus features. Peace and fucking.