Nathan Barley, Chris Morris and Charlie Brooker’s 2005 satirical sitcom about the East London media scene and tech-saturated hipsterdom, was a flop when it first aired on Channel 4: by episode five of its six-episode run, its audience had dropped to just 500,000 (a 2% share). The title character, played by Nicholas Burns, was originally created for Brooker’s TV listings parody website TVGoHome as the star of a documentary called Cunt. Nathan is softened for the sitcom from an outright cunt into an insufferable twat: he’s a self-described “self-facilitating media node”, running a website called Trashbat.co.ck (registered in the Cook Islands) where he posts prank videos and assorted shite. “It’s an online urban culture dispatch,” he says. The sitcom puts Nathan in contrast with Dan Ashcroft (Julian Barratt), a frustrated cynic working at SugarApe magazine (stylised to emphasis “rape”), an obvious parody of Vice. In the first episode, Dan writes an article about the rise of the idiots, lambasting people like Nathan and his colleagues at SugarApe. Nathan and all the other idiots think it’s genius. It’s a brilliantly funny, weird little show, alternating between unabashed silliness and jet-black shock humour.
A second season of the show was never commissioned. Morris and Brooker both went on to bigger things – Brooker created Black Mirror, and Morris continues to be an incomparable genius – as did much of the cast – a host of now big stars play bit parts, from Benedict Cumberbatch to Ben Whishaw – but it has not prompted much of a return to Nathan Barley. Digital Spy once claimed it became a cult hit on DVD, but they would say that, wouldn’t they? Every retrospective on some flop no-one remembers claims it later became a cult hit. It’s not like people are going to Nathan Barley conventions dressed as Nikolai the Barber’s dead cat.
When people do talk about Nathan Barley, it’s usually something along the lines of how Nathan Barley came true. “From cereal cafes to breakfast raves to adult ball pools, from TV shows like Sex Box to newspaper features about the ‘meaning’ of the Man Bun hairdo to inexplicable online phenomena like Ello, our world has been Barleyed. It is uncanny,” The Guardian claimed on the show’s tenth anniversary, “…At 10 years’ remove the show seems less a comedy and more a documentary about the future.”
Ivan Radford writes that Barley is “all around us, posting cat videos on YouTube and spewing his opinions everywhere.” A retrospective in Frameland says, “There are still scenes that scare me because I see them around me every day.” We are all Dan Ashcroft now, is the upshot, in a world of Nathan Barleys.
All of this is insane to the point of being inexplicable. Far from predicting the future, Nathan Barley is the most 2005 thing imaginable. It’s the time capsule to beat all time capsules. It’s a vivid if parodic rendering of a very specific moment in technology and culture: when we had mobiles but didn’t yet have smartphones, when the internet was in common use but wasn’t yet sucked into a handful of giant monoliths (YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Google). When magazines existed and Jackass was endlessly repeated on MTV. Now that we’re all plugged into the internet all the time, and the internet consists of like, maybe six websites – now that online personalities accuse each other of sexual assault in revenge for allegedly endorsing a rival brand of vitamin gummies – Nathan Barley feels like an artefact of an ancient society. Nathan asking people to visit his website, or showing off his new phone that has a gigantic number 5 button because that’s apparently the most used, transports me full force back to the mid-2000s. It practically gives me whiplash.
I think the instinct to claim Nathan Barley is actually extremely current and actually predicted the future is as a proxy for explaining that it rules. Describing something as “dated” or not is a pervasive tick in how we talk about art, and maybe TV most of all: the central test for anything older than a couple of years isn’t whether it’s good or bad, but whether it “holds up” or has become dated. Calling it dated – or equivocating around the same point – is a way to dismiss it out of hand, and explaining that it’s actually very relevant to whatever’s happening now is a way to say it’s good. As if the best thing something old can aspire to is to seem new, as if the best thing the past can aspire to be is the present.
But everything is a product of its own very specific moment in history. Everything is dated. In an essay about television and American fiction writing, David Foster Wallace writes about a graduate workshop where the lecturer told them that literary fiction “eschews ‘any feature which serves to date it,’ because ‘serious fiction must be timeless.’” The class protests that in the lecturer’s own work, characters moved about in electrically lit rooms, drove cars, spoke not Anglo-Saxon but postwar English, and inhabited a North America already separated from Africa by continental drift. Timelessness doesn’t exist.
Nathan Barley was unmistakably made in 2005, could only have been made in 2005 (or thereabouts), and that’s one of my favourite things about it. I already live in the present, I’m stuck here forever, why would I demand my TV shows be here over any other time in human history? The question of whether you should watch Nathan Barley shouldn’t rest on it heroically transcending 2005, it should rest on whether it’s good. And it is good. It’s great.
Nathan Barley is both a synthesis of a huge range of comedy styles and something distinctly its own. It’s really good at proper gag writing, like giving characters silly names – the editor of SugarApe is called Jonatton Yeah?, question mark and all – but also brilliant at the kind of cringe comedy that’s gone out of fashion: where you take a shock humour premise and play it all the way out. In one episode, Nathan gets a blowjob from a girl who is revealed to be thirteen, then later revealed to actually be eighteen, while Dan is sent on assignment from SugarApe to participate in some “straight-on-straight” gay action in a pub bathroom. I squirmed in my seat the whole time. It’s full of smart, funny commentary on internet culture of the time, but never falls into the trap of thinking referring to internet culture is an end in itself the way so much internet-infused TV did at the time.
Critics in general spend too much time talking about Nathan and not enough about Dan Ashcroft, who is, after all, the show’s protagonist. Nathan is the showier character: instantly insufferable and compulsively annoying, he gets most of the shows great lines – “Trash, as in what’s all around us… and… bat,” “It’s gonna be totally fucking Mexico,” his go-to greeting “peace and fucking.” But Dan is the show’s centre. He aspires to serious journalism but is stuck at SugarApe, writing about art shows that consist of portraits of celebrities pissing. At one point, he goes to the Weekend on Sunday to, he thinks, accept a job offer. It’s actually a job interview. He ends up pathetically attempting to list wines to cover in a wine column: “French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, French… err… Southern French. Danish.” The show is, in no small part, a chronicle of Dan’s descent into hell.
To read reviews, you’d think Dan is the neutral audience surrogate of the show, the straight man to Nathan’s antics. But Dan is a deeply dark, fucked-up character, and ultimately the more damning characterisation. He is, by his own lights, a failure, doing work he hates for people he hates, but that doesn’t stop him looking down on everyone around him. He’s right that he’s surrounded by idiots, but he looks down at everyone the same way: it takes years for him to take that meeting at the Weekend on Sunday because he thinks it’s sell-out bullshit. His big ‘Rise of the Idiots’ article – “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” – is just a petulant announcement that he’s actually very smart. No wonder the idiots liked it so much.
The reason he hates Nathan, more than anything, is that Nathan is happy. Dan’s driving force isn’t to escape his own torment, but to see the idiots suffer too. He wants bad things to happen to other people in a really cruel, personal way. But Nathan doesn’t suffer: the sitcom reset is elevated to a law of the universe, ensuring that ultimately, everything will work out for him. Nathan sees Dan after Dan sleeps in some paint and decides to copy his look, only to be horribly embarrassed when he sees Dan got his paint-matted hair cut off. But then Nathan’s spotted by a Japanese TV crew and anointed a style icon. Dan thinks this is a war, and Nathan wins every battle. When Nathan copies his coffee order, Dan escalates the coffee order to ridiculous places – he asks for scrambled egg and smoked salmon in his coffee – to see if Nathan will follow. Nathan does, laughing, thinking they’re playing some kind of game. When Nathan drinks it and says it’s really nice, Dan is furious. He insists that Nathan didn’t like it, and that he won that exchange, to which Nathan happily agrees. That just infuriates him more.
Nathan doesn’t think he and Dan are at war. He thinks Dan is his friend. He thinks everyone is his friend, really. He’s extremely helpful to Dan’s sister Claire (Claire Keelan) as she works on her documentary about an addicts’ choir. Although his pranks on his assistant Pingu (Ben Whishaw) are basically torture, they’re not motivated by any animosity or cruelty. The thing about Nathan is that he’s annoying and dumb and eminently punchable, but he’s also, deep down – sometimes very deep down – quite sweet. He has a heart where Dan’s shrivelled long ago.
Yet so many reviews of the show might as well have been written by Dan Ashcroft. Christopher Howse’s contemporary review in The Telegraph – in addition to saying Nathan Barley “makes Desperate Housewives look like the Dick Van Dyke Show”, whatever that means – contains this paragraph:
If you think that Barley clipping a car battery to the ears of the bullied computer nerd Pingu (played by Ben Whishaw, that notable Hamlet) for the benefit of the webcam is unlikely, remember last year’s Jackass-imitation called Dirty Sanchez, which featured three drunk Welsh skateboarders and genital mutilation for laughs. It was quite popular.
There’s a lot I could unpack here, but let’s begin with the sneering condescension. Dirty Sanchez was a good show, and Jackass was one of the best shows of all time. Howse assumes that no-one reading his review could possibly have enjoyed Dirty Sanchez – could more than, at best, vaguely recall its existence – or even personally know anyone who enjoyed it. He notes that “it was quite popular” the way you would comment on the activities of another species. The review totally buys into the dichotomy Dan sets out in ‘The Rise of the Idiots’ – there are idiots, consuming frivolous or gross low culture online, and the rest of us, hopelessly subject to their whims despite our big fabulous brains. Howse enjoys the show on that level, even if that level requires watching the show with a hell of squint. He says that Nathan Barley isn’t a sitcom but “a satirical drama,” as if this isn’t a show whose title character runs a website called, I repeat, trashbat.co.ck.
But the show itself doesn’t buy into Dan Ashcroft’s perspective that easily. It has huge disdain for the idiots, but that doesn’t mean it reflectively endorses Dan. The retrospective take that we are all Dan Ashcroft in a world of Nathan Barleys isn’t just insane because there are no Dan Ashcrofts or Nathan Barleys anymore – the media landscape has changed that utterly, utterly, utterly – but because to the extent that those broad types exist, being a Dan is a terrible way to react to a world of Nathans.
Because no matter how much he might protest otherwise, Dan is just another one of the idiots.