‘Barney & Friends’ documentary tries to tie bashing the kids’ show to larger cultural tides




CNN
 — 

Aside from planting that song in everyone’s head (again), “I Love You, You Hate Me” is an amusing look back at the “Barney & Friends” phenomenon, and the over-the-top torrents of hostility the PBS children’s show elicited. Yet the two-part documentary is also the soapy story of the creator and her family, which ends up eclipsing the overreaching impulse to connect the purple dinosaur to something more culturally profound.

Conceived by Sheryl Leach, a resident of Allen, Texas, in 1988, “Barney” became an instant favorite among toddlers, in part because of its simple repetition and cheerfully cut-rate production values. The show also “hit a nerve at the dawn of the social-media era,” as Bob West, the original voice of Barney, observes, with music director Bob Singleton noting that material tailored to a three year old “will drive a grownup crazy.”

By tapping into an under-served, fresh-out-of-diapers demographic, Leach became fabulously wealthy, eventually selling the company for $275 million. But the popularity of Barney exacted an almost Shakespearean toll on her family, including her son, Patrick, who, it’s suggested, suffered for growing up in the shadow of a felt-covered “sibling” whose fame eclipsed him.

“All that success came at a price,” says Andrew Olsen, a devotee of “Barney” history and its memorabilia.

There are other strange details in director Tommy Avallone’s film, like how the original actor inside the Barney suit, David Joyner, found a too-good-to-be-true (for media purposes, anyway) second career as a tantric massage therapist and healer, a practice that included, by his admission, sleeping with at least some of his clients.

Still, “I Love You” really wants to emphasize the vitriol flung at Barney – the “You Hate Me” part – as evidence of a nasty turn in the culture during those years, from the snarky attitude embodied by David Letterman to the daily fistfights on Jerry Springer’s talk show.

It’s a reasonable point at first, but one the documentary overplays, especially when there’s so much odd, specific stuff about the show to mine here. Sure, the Barney bashing (such as an incident with the famous San Diego Chicken) sailed into the ridiculous, but what that says America during those years doesn’t necessarily represent any kind of a straight line.

There are also rather arbitrary voices brought into the mix, such as NBC’s Al Roker, which merely underscores that the list of people with something profound to share about Barney, which was canceled in 2010, is relatively short.

“I Love You, You Hate Me” has already generated media attention for Peacock, so score it as a win by that measure. But while the project captures a very specific moment in time, it runs out of insight before its time is up.

“I Love You, You Hate Me” premieres October 12 on Peacock.

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