Nathan Barley was a short-lived and relatively relevant television program on England’s Channel 4 that had the makings for a scrappy cult following; it shared the honest sentiments of an everyman peering into a digital era. The show follows Nathan Barley, a pre-Youtube, late 90’s looking, slang slingin’ content farmer whose personal fondness in Internet fodder owes a nod and a wink to the likes of Jackass, VICE, and the Deep Web. More importantly, is a thought that Nathan Barley provokes via the lifestyle of its self-styled subject. When you look past the mid-2000s internet culture the show directly harpoons, it becomes unnervingly clear that the idiot-wizard of this new media circus holds a mirror to our current age of self-branding.
Back when Nathan Barley was on the air, the show received some criticism for striking when its subject matter wasn’t too hot. The internet had settled quite comfortably into pop culture when the show premiered and the idea of poking fun at Internet-savvy ding dongs had been a path that’d already been tread. Yet, the cultural value of the show, as its own aging has proved, was not so obvious in its initial context.
In the context of the show, we see Nathan Barley as an unabashed self-promoter of his website “trashbat.co.ck” slapping stickers on walls, seats and people. He dual-wields Bluetooth headsets, arms himself with a piece of portable tech that serves as a computer, a mini-turntable and a cell phone, of course. He’s proud of his business, despite it being digital smut, and he wishes to share it with everyone. In the context of the now, these notions aren’t too unfamiliar with the way everyday Internet-branders carry themselves, looking past the obvious joke of it all.
In our current Internet Age, borrowing and re-borrowing someone else’s content to promote ourselves as a member of culture via social media is now socially acceptable. We can pick and choose a video, a song or a picture from someone else and tell others about it on the go. Less of a joke now, social media has ultimately bred mass self-promotion. This is a topic of art and media that Nathan Barley so explicitly its concerns over; and this was back in 2005.
Now, Nathan Barley, as a fictional character, is a precise satire and hyperbolic symbol of this idea. Though as mentioned before, the idea of mass self-promotion is second-hand to what the show had truly aimed its metaphorical gun at. British audiences of Nathan Barley, for example, found the show’s dark criticism of urban trustafarians, pseudo-intellectuals and web-inclined, art school students a guilty delight. More importantly, it also gave these viewers insight into the kinds of leftist, artsy folk they saw dominating London’s trendy East End; and even further, it gave pop culture a new name to tout this subculture (hint: it wasn’t ‘hipster’). In fact, crude, privileged scenesters with a BFA in graphic design were, and still are, referred to as “Nathan Barleys”. It’s a cheeky insult, but a playfully valid one that Americans alike could appreciate.
Nathan Barley had a hyper brief, six episode tenure. In that time, it expressed a statement that was half-relevant then and doubly relevant now. Think Idiocracy meets Tumblr meets VICE. The comedy featured was as black as deep web itself, not shying away from mind-blasting, real world phenomena such as straight-on-straight gay sex, urination artists, hobo Olympics and underage blowjobs to name a few. While this provocative correlation between scenesters and worldly nightmares aimed to slag the “Nathan Barleys” of the world, the idea that we all might have a bit of Barley in us is what the show alerts its viewers to when we see it now.
It’s not so much that the creators of Nathan Barley believe those who express a love for the web to push art and business are culturally-repulsive morons. The point lies in its criticism of people who claim to love the web for the advancement of these things but use it to selfishly further themselves in the name of insanely inane societal trends. These same satirized people also happen to lack a peculiar sense of self-awareness, which the show wishes to exclaim with an industrial-sized exclamation mark. For those curious, Nathan Barley is worth the short ride that’ll arm you with highly quotable zingers such as “totally fucking Mexico” and “well fuckin’ futile”. Check it out, yeah?