Friday, 19 February 2010

Nathan Barley

Nathan Barley, a 2005 comedy from the pen or pens (depending on if they have one each or prefer to share) of Chris Morris and Charlie Brooker, is one of the most impressive tv satires I've seen. It is very much a product of its time: the mid-90s digital media boom, and the concomitant trash-hipster anti-aesthetic it exposed and commercialised. Nathan Barley himself is a magnetic but loathsome creation: a selfish, amoral self-promoter, Barley is, as Wikipedia has it, "fully of the belief that because he has a camera, some knowledge of web publishing and a webspace, that he has a talent". Barley does in fact have talent: he is a master of exploitation, and a genius at passing off jejune pranks and witless "political" statements as the latest in urban cool.

Barley is unique in the pantheon of amoral tv protagonists in that he is given no redeeming qualities whatsoever. No matter how cringe-inducing, vain or psychotic, the modern tv anti-hero is generally rounded. David Brent, Tony Soprano, Alan Partridge, et al, are contemptible specimens yet retain our sympathy through flashes of self-awareness, warmth, or simple tragic humanity. Nathan Barley is the death of affect made flesh, a monster focused solely upon maintaining his place at the top of a dubious heirarchy of inner-city try-hards.

Nathan Barley is as outrageous and hilarious as one would expect from Morris and Brooker; it is also brutal in its attack on the amoral cesspit its characters inhabit. The use of irony as an excuse for immorality is savaged beyond reconstruction. In one episode, a photo shoot for hipster bible Sugar Ape's "Vice Issue" in which over-age models are depicted on camera as under-age models being molested by the magazine's staff becomes a Gordian knot of sophistic "irony":

Rufus: Well the idea, yeah, was to make it look like these models are being molested in a magazine office.
Ned: When actually that's not what was really happening.
Rufus: Yeah, only 'cause they were all in on it, yeah, it isn't.
Ned: 'Cept, 'cause we were actually fucking them, it kind of is.
Nathan: Yeah yeah, I touched two of 'em.

Everything is fodder to these "idiots", as Dan Ashcroft, the show's harried straight man calls them. Ashcroft writes for Sugar Ape (which in the course of the series is renamed several times, from Sugar Ape to SugaRAPE to the über-shocking and thus über-ironic RAPE) but is clear-sighted about Barley and the rest: "The idiots are self-regarding consumer slaves, oblivious to the paradox of their uniform individuality. They sculpt their hair to casual perfection, they wear their waistbands below their balls, they babble into hand-held twit machines about that cool email of the woman being bummed by a wolf. Their cool friend made it. He's an idiot too. Welcome to the age of stupidity. Hail to the rise of the idiots." Yet the idiots adopt Ashcroft as a prophet; his plaint is quickly absorbed into the stupidity-rich atmosphere, where sincerity - and, by extension, yearning, intelligence, humanity - is frowned upon as a downer, if ever contemplated at all. Barley and co. are consumer slaves, but their voraciousness makes them masters. They are what they eat.

Nathan Barley is three hours of bang-on, dark and disturbing satire that is both genuinely funny and disturbing. To my knowledge it has never aired in Australia and I doubt it ever could. Fortunately it is easily obtainable on dvd from the UK, or presumably through "other methods".

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