Hating on Barney was, and remains, quite easy, and in I Love You, You Hate Me—a new two-part Peacock docuseries (Oct. 12) about the famed purple dinosaur—it’s Blue’s Clues host Steve Burns who aptly diagnoses our impulse to loathe the character. As he sees it, humans take instinctive pleasure in tearing down things that are irrepressibly happy, and in this case, that was exacerbated by the fact that Barney—unlike, say, the inhabitants of Sesame Street—was perpetually and preternaturally cheery, wholesome, and upbeat. Rather than struggling with complicated emotions, Barney was a big plushy figure of radiant sunshine who imagined a world in which love and acceptance were everywhere, and family was a unit upon which you could always count. Those lessons resonated deeply with young, impressionable kids. For cynical grown-ups living in the real world, however, they were so much unbearable saccharine mush.
Directed by Tommy Avallone, I Love You, You Hate Me will not make you feel bad about being driven mad by Barney, but it does cast such feelings in their proper context—and, consequently, makes the real “Barney Bashers” look more than a tad pathetic. Video of a 1990s University of Nebraska event in which college guys smashed dolls and staged a fight in which Barney was beaten up by Big Bird (the organizer’s own childhood favorite) is to witness fragile masculinity at its finest, and lends credence to the notion that part of what made Barney off-putting was that he represented a softness that was at odds with the decade’s aggro machismo. It’s only a small step from there to theorize that Barney—a giant, cuddly purple creature who preached tolerance and affection—was threatening because he seemed gay, although as in most other instances, the docuseries floats this idea but doesn’t actually investigate it in an in-depth way.
I Love You, You Hate Me features interviews with a wide array of men and women who were associated with Barney & Friends, the preschool TV sensation that ran from 1992-2010, but the two people who are most discussed and yet conspicuously missing are creator Sheryl Leach and her son Patrick. Inspired to create entertainment that would appeal to her then-2-year-old son, Sheryl dreamed up Barney, who quickly became a VHS—and then a PBS—smash. In the 1990s and 2000s, Barney was a ubiquitous presence known for his goofy voice (handled by Bob West), jubilant body language (via performer David Joyner), and feel-good messages. Numerous individuals recount their experiences with the program, including some of its adolescent stars (Pia Hamilton, Leah Montes, Hope Cervantes, Rickey Carter) as well as lifelong superfan Andrew Olsen, who narrates a lot of Sheryl’s story in her absence, and whose comments about the normality of continuing to love Barney as an adult will likely strike some as unconvincing at best, and strange at worst.
I Love You, You Hate Me revels in the antipathy many felt—and still feel—for Barney, and alongside jokey Saturday Night Live and Animaniacs bits, director Avallone speaks with some of the prime culprits. Rob Curran began a newsletter called “The I Hate Barney Secret Society” to unite some of his fellow anti-Barney-ites, and Sean Breen was a member, and eventual leader, of an early internet role-playing collective known as “The Jihad to Destroy Barney.” Even if, in the former’s case, this behavior landed him on Donahue, neither one comes close to justifying their anger, and archival clips of people slandering Barney are more sad than amusing. At least Breen recognizes that the online hostility he peddled against Barney was probably a forerunner of 4chan and QAnon—a notion that’s related to a former neo-Nazi turned anti-hate activist’s comments that loathing Barney is just another form of despising “the other.”
There’s also a healthy dose of scandal in I Love You, You Hate Me. Numerous interviewees discuss the toll that Barney’s popularity took on Patrick, peaking with him shooting his neighbor through the chest on Jan 9, 2013, over a trespassing dispute, and receiving 15 years behind bars (he served five). Everyone is in agreement that Patrick had it rough as the boy who was indirectly responsible for Barney (whom he had to compete with for attention at home), as well as a benign brain-tumor scare, his parents’ divorce, and his father’s suicide. This isn’t salacious so much as sorrowful, however, and it’s thus no surprise that neither Patrick nor Sheryl wants to revisit the tragic consequences of Barney’s success for viewers.
Perhaps the strangest moment in I Love You, You Hate Me is the revelation that original Barney actor Joyner is a “tantric energy healer” who began studying the practice in 1990, and who now helps “goddesses reconnect with their sexual energy on a spiritual level.” While Joyner says that sexual energy is for both physical gratification and spiritual elevation, he admits that he has sex with some of his clients—a somewhat eye-opening thread that could have used further exploration. As is his wont, though, director Avallone moves past it as quickly as he does almost every other intriguing angle, keeping the material fleet but superficial, and reliant on a wealth of archival material (backstage and rehearsal footage, early concept drawings, performance clips, photos, news broadcasts) to maintain buoyant energy.
Otherwise, I Love You, You Hate Me provides a sketchy recap of the rise and fall of Barney & Friends, minus any real details about why the show ran its course. One is left to assume that kids simply grew tired of Barney’s shtick, this despite the fact that all involved talk incessantly about his unbelievable pull with the younger set, whom he spoke to in a magical way that was matched by few modern fictional characters. The sole takeaway from Avallone’s two-part docuseries is that a lot of people had good reason to dislike Barney, yet only to a minor degree, at which point their wrath said a lot more about them than it did about the character and his peace-and-love ethos. Then again, with hatred of open-minded compassion now the norm in many corners of contemporary America, perhaps Barney’s saga really is less a cultural footnote than a prologue for today.