It's a bit tricky to figure out what to say about Nathan Barley, the new Chris Morris/Charlie Brooker sitcom which aired for the first time tonight on Channel 4. For a start, if you write for a London-based weblog, it's not entirely obvious which would make you look less like Nathan Barley - liking Nathan Barley the sitcom or hating Nathan Barley the sitcom. Londonist will hedge by saying that it's a bit of a mixture.
As you have now been endlessly told, Nathan Barley is a real television programme named after the hero of a fake television programme named, in honour of its hero, a four-letter word we can't mention on a family website. Nathan Barley himself is the epitome of the New Economy, Hoxton-dwelling, webmastering, Jockey Slut-reading, trend-gaping, iPod-wielding, Banksy-emulating, um, C**T.
The original creation was simply a series of fake programme listings, each a minute snapshot of some ghastly instance from Nathan's awful, shallow, life. Each one of these pen-portraits was perfectly tuned to incite rage in all right-thinking, sentient people. All of which was very funny, but it had no plot and, apart from Nathan, no characters. So it was hard to imagine how it might move to the small screen.
For a start, unless the programme was going to be unwatchably infuriating or Nathan was toned down, he needed a sympathetic foil - a vaguely human character. In fact, he is given three: Dan Ashcroft, a journalist for SugarApe magazine, Dan's sister and Pingu, Nathan's persecuted colleague. Also, since endless Barley-snapshots would watch like a sketch show with only one sketch and be a bit repetitive. So a plot was needed.
Briefly: Nathan runs a website containing monkey and Banksy-style Flash animation as well as Jackass-style video clips of him playing "hilarious pranks" on Pingu. Like attaching a lorry battery to his head. Dan is a former arch-Hoxtonite who is deeply, deeply tired of the whole scene and decides the time has come to move to the banal but mature Weekend on Sunday Magazine. This move fails, and he is forced to remain among the idiots he loathes. Meanwhile his sister, an aspiring documentary-maker, has been offered the use of Nathan's suspiciously well-equipped "media node" for free if she passes an as-yet unspecified "test". Nathan idolises Dan, but Dan loathes Nathan and everything he stands for. However, they seem to keep bumping into each other.
That's plenty of plot for a half-hour sitcom, but being a first episode a lot of introductions were needed. Even then, a lot of threads were touched on but ignored - Nathan's flatmate, for instance, and the fact that Pingu seems to be very, very, very close to snapping and murdering Nathan. Also, the episode focused more on Dan than Nathan, perhaps for health and safety reasons - kicking in your TV is bad for you.
That wasn't a problem, since Dan is a great character. His inner torment at being desperate to escape SugarApe, but having no transferable skills, is writ large on his face and in most of his lines. The agonising interview with the Weekend on Sunday was the highlight of the episode.
However, there are a few problems. Although the contemporary references rush past incessantly and the satirical targets - JackAss, the increasingly absurd design of mobile phones, minibikes - are skewered effortlessly, the concept itself feels a bit less red hot. Since Nathan Barley emerged on Brooker's (now defunct) TV Go Home website, something over five years ago, the dot-com boom has bust and, rather than being an apparently emergent master-race, its illegitimate Carhartt-wearing children now seem automatically self-mocking.
That's not to say that Nathan and his ilk aren't funny on screen. They are. But they are also funny off screen, which means that Nathan Barley is not the vitriolic weapons-grade satire C**T was, and is instead more of a freakshow.
Maybe that was to be expected given the time lapse, but considering the involvement of the fearlessly vicious Chris Morris the sitcom seems surprisingly pedestrian. Its quality is still extremely high - but for a Brooker/Morris project, still surprisingly pedestrian.
Which isn't to say that it wasn't anything other than an excellent debut. Londonist looks forward to seeing how it unfolds.