Trying to second-guess where the brain of Chris Morris will take you next is never a good idea. Which is probably why the idea of him co-writing (and directing) a sitcom based on a website lost him a number of fans, no doubt all of them breathlessly awaiting something more along the likes of the sublime Brass Eye, or the sensory-overload-mind-f*** that was Jam. Which is a great pity, because when taken on its own merits, held away from the canon of Morris genius, Nathan Barley is a fine series.
The character originally came from the spoof Radio Times listings website TVGoHome, which was created by Barley co-writer Charlie Brooker. Twas here that Barley's 'televised' adventures, in a series called Cunt, were catalogued.
For a TV sitcom, Cunt is a somewhat user-unfriendly title, so the show became Nathan Barley. A lot of the ideas originally postulated within Cunt have been taken and turned into a whole world full of idiots (which is the main concept of the series), presenting us with differing levels of idiot and their interaction.
The main batch of the idiots all have the latest Japanese technology months before anyone else (and let you know it). Idiots who follow any facile trend, be it clothing, haircuts, or riding around the office on a kids plastic tractor, anything that they think (or are told by style magazines) is cool. Idiots that don't know they are idiots; the category that the eponymous Barley wears the crown for with a huge grin of mindless superiority.
Batch 2 are the characters that hate the idiots, but who finds themselves reliant on their existence so that magazine articles about what idiots the idiots are can be written - even though the idiots themselves don't realise they are being written about, as they are idiots. Thus making the second batch of characters idiots feeding the idiots so that they can then feed off the idiots (and on and on it goes, forever and ever, AMEN). Dan Ashcroft, the other main protagonist, finds himself helplessly trapped in this particularly horrible little box.
Confused? Good, as Nathan Barley isn't your standard fare sitcom.
The action swings between the offices of SugarApe Magazine (the idiot's Bible), and the headquarters of Barley's sad little media-nerd empire, known to each and every fad-slavering gimp through the website, "www.trashbat.co.ck" - "It's registered in the Cook Islands", states Barley with a grin that says it is the funniest thing ever.
Barley spends his days riding around the streets of a fictitious area of London on his stupid little bike, slapping stickers for his website over everything that does or doesn't move, spouting spurious 'cool' phrases at every turn ("Peace and f***ing, my ni**er", "Keep it Mencap!") and looking like a tit.
When in his office, Barley regularly persecutes and tortures his shy computer-geek mate Pingu in a series of Jackass style pranks (electrocution with a lorry battery, jumping out on him holding a gun etc), all of which gets filmed, and is put up on the "trashbat.co.ck" website - the website that Pingu maintains and runs.
Ashcroft works for SugarApe Magazine, surrounded by twits who play "C*ck, Muff, Bumhole" (a bastardisation of "Scissors, Paper, Stone"), wear ridiculously small hats, and think Barley and his website are acts of genius. He vents his anger over "The Rise of the Idiots" via his magazine column, all the while hating the fact he has to work with (and for) the very people he is writing about (who, to add insult to injury, think he is a cool genius). Whenever he enters the offices of the magazine, his expression of a condemned man couldn't be plainer.
His boss, Jonatton Yeah? ("He had the question mark added by Deed Poll"), knows that Dan hates his job and the fools that surround him, yet is acutely aware that Dan is desperate for the cash the job provides him with - and so deliberately sends him out to cover events of functions he knows Dan will hate, yet will have to write great things about if he wants paying. What a b*stard.
And Lordy, does Dan need the money. His sister Claire is an aspiring documentary maker, who has her camera gear confiscated by the bailiffs over a debt Dan owes a video company. So Dan owes her big time. Big time enough to chase cash from "SugarApe" by indulging in some straight-on-straight gay sex in a family pub toilet. Or dressing up as a Preacher at one of Barley's trend-gimp sodden club nights, with the baying crowd of plebs all chanting "Preacherman!". Dan Ashcroft is well and truly stuck between the devil and the big blue wet one.
And if things couldn't get worse for poor Dan, sister Claire is taken under Barley's wing when he offers her the free use of his editing equipment and a laptop at Trash Industries (Barley only participating in this seemingly random act of kindness as he wants to sleep with Claire and thinks he can impress her with his contacts).
As ghastly as this world is for all the characters that exist in it, no-one would be in it without the existence of the others. Barley relies on Ashcroft and his magazine articles to tell him what he should think is cool. Ashcroft relies on Barley and his ilk to be able to write the articles in the first place. Poor beleaguered Pingu relies on Barley employing him, as much as Barley relies on Pingu to create his website (and suffer at the arse-end of more and more practical jokes that Pingu then gets the joy of uploading). Claire relies on Barley so she can get her documentary made, while Dan relies on Barley so that he can write articles for "SugarApe" to earn the cash he owes Claire. The whole thing is a sordid never-ending snake eating its own tail, and just as unpleasant. And as funny.
For the faithful, there are still plenty of Morris-isms a go-go. A photographic exhibition of celebrities pissing. Subtle yet juvenile gags hidden on glimpsed-for-mere-seconds magazine covers. The whole sequence in the Barbers in Episode 4 which would have looked perfectly at home as a segment in Jam. So it is a shame this series slipped under the radar and garnered appalling ratings for Channel 4. The programme would have been hailed as ground-breaking genius if the genre-stomping Green Wing hadn't popped up a handful of months before it and stolen all its thunder (and making the camera-work on Barley look like nothing but a cheap rip-off).
It is therefore your duty to buy the DVD of Nathan Barley so that this little gem doesn't fall into the cracks between sitcoms, and is swallowed and forgotten. You get the whole series, the untransmittable pilot episode, deleted scenes and the usual demented Morris-style extras. If I was Nathan Barley, I'd be spouting out of my gob end that it was "Well Jackson!" But I'm not. So I won't.
If you have walked the streets of London, Brighton, heck, any major city centre and had your brain walloped senseless by idiots wearing far too many designer labels than is good for them; if one of the already-too-many-trendy magazines has got on your nerves by just existing; if you're just grateful it isn't My Hero - Nathan Barley is a wonderful, demented, sad and knowing series. Embrace it. Suckle it.
Barley is served well on the DVD release. Anamorphically enhanced widescreen transfer presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, the quality of which varies - mainly down to the production crew using all sorts of different camera trickery and the like to present the story. The soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 2. Extras include the radically different 45 minute pilot (called here "Untransmittable" rather than "untransmitted"), an option to watch Episode 5 with redubbed dialogue (as demented as it sounds), plus DVD-ROM content - Barley's website, which includes a hi-res gallery of SugarApe covers and content, posters, flyers, and pictures of celebs urinating. Add to that some specially recorded Barley dialogue accessed through the Gallery, all of the original TVGoHome write-ups, plus a swath of specially recorded menus showing Barley poncing it up in London on his thick little bike.
A truly gorgeous package, that includes a 48-page booklet of Barley's "Banksy" style guerilla juvenile graffiti work - a wonderful, wonderful DVD release.