After publishing a rant about 'idiots' - frantically hip, ignorant scenesters - Dan Ashcroft finds these same people embracing him as his idol and his nerves constantly tested by his biggest fan, moronic scene personality Nathan Barley.
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Dan Ashcroft, a bad-tempered and chaotic journalist working for hip magazine 'Sugar Ape', believes that he is surrounded by what he calls 'idiots': hedonistic scenesters who care about nothing but the latest trend. Nathan Barley is a prime example of this species, so logically he and his website 'trashbat.co.ck' are a hit with Dan's dim-witted workmates. No matter how much Dan tries to avoid him, Nathan keeps causing awkward situations for both Dan and his sister, earnest film-maker Claire. Can the rise of the idiot be stopped? Written by
Chris Morris advances on the agitprop satire of Brass Eye, and the ambient weirdness of Jam, with the wonderfully caustic and gleefully vicious Nathan Barley. As others have noted, 'Barley' is probably Morris's most-subtle creation yet... a seemingly conventional sitcom about life in the world of the media, with cutting edge magazine publishers, idolised DJ's, crusading digital filmmakers and techno-wiz-kids all standing in as the centre of attention, complete with their own annoying txt-speak characteristics, daft costumes, anti-establishment opinions and ever-so-trendy idiosyncrasies. However, the joke here is not what is written into the scripts (though, more often than not, this is incredible funny), but rather, the notion that these kind of characters - which do exist in real life - will no doubt buy into the whole joke, watching each episode eagerly before going into the office the next day to confront their friends and co-workers with the usual one-liners.
Morris, writing here alongside Charlie Brooker, is to television what Luke Haines is to pop music... someone who can work within the confines of an industry, gathering acclaim and a legion of devoted fans, whilst simultaneously trying to bring said industry down from the inside!! Morris and Brooker seem to have a genuine contempt for the characters that they write about, and - as with Brass Eye and The Day Today - the joke sometimes becomes so scathing and so accurate, that you actually forget that you're watching a satire (a notion continued by Morris's faux-edgy directorial style, which has swerving hand-held cameras and random zooms to, I would hope, rip the pip out of all of these trendy new TV shows that want be challenging - in a Dogme-style sense - so bad, they can practically taste it!!). Some of the media pastiches are fantastic too, like the so-chic it hurts art gallery that consisted of nothing more than pictures of celebrities urinating, or the Russian underground website, which includes pay-per-view downloadable clips of "tramp marathons" and tooth-pulling competitions, complete with armed police threatening anyone refusing to take part with assault rifles and teargas.
The madness of the show works because Morris and Brooker tend to anchor the shows to the character of Dan (The Preacher Man) Ashcroft, a cynical and fairly down-to-earth sort, who seems at odds with the backslapping and self-congratulatory cretins who populate his office. As a result, the jokes work because we can relate to Dan's anguish at being celebrated by these fools, who find humour in irreverent spreads on child molestation, have chainsaw ring tones and have a unhealthy habit of composing raps while they get it on with the opposite sex (Nathan's seduction of Claire is absolute comedy genius... "yeah, well plastic, man!!"). My favourite gag would have to be Dan unintentionally creating a new trendy hair-style when he falls asleep under the paint table. "What's it called?" asks Nathan. "Errr... Geek Pie" replies Dan. Cut to Nathan on Japanese TV promoting said hair-style without a shard or irony or good humour.
Most of the jokes work on multiple levels, often acting as an out-and-out parody of the kind of pretentious, novelty, tabloid-bating nonsense that seems to be continually spat out of these nu-media outlets (digital television, on-line publishing, underground advertising, or remnants of the shallow mid-nineties art scene, etc)... but then, there's also the integration of the characters, the disgust and contempt that Dan has for his colleagues, and the sheer genius of the word play used by these bizarre caricatures (typical Barley invitation, "you should come doll snatch, it's gonn'a be Mexico!!"... all this and more from the man who gave us "fact me till I fart"). The cast is great, padded out with characters form The Mighty Boosh and the brilliant Garth Marenghi's Darkplace, so you know the timing and delivery will be pitch perfect and the plausibility spot on.
Nathan Barley may not scale the comedic highs of Morris's more on-the-nose satires like The Day Today and Brass Eye, but it is, nonetheless, very funny, not just in the way the jokes are constructed, but in the believability and plausibility of the characterisations and the recreation of that kind of self-conscious, self-styled universe. Morris (and Brooker) should be commended for taking a risk with this serious, creating something that almost passes for a normal sitcom, but with that much loved/much needed Morris contempt always lurking, just beneath the surface.
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