Barney the dinosaur alongside a TV-14 rating seems like a joke. But Peacock’s new documentary — which earns the rating because of “violence, coarse language, and dialogue” — is anything but.
For the audience who grew up with the show “Barney & Friends” and, years later, dusted off old VHS tapes for their kids to watch, “I Love You, You Hate Me” starts as a letdown. The audience might have been happy with a straight historical dissection of the popular children’s show, but apparently, the spectacle of violence and hatred is catchier for a wider audience.
The two-part miniseries, directed by Tommy Avallone, hinges on the dark history lurking behind the sunny world of the popular children’s series. The trailer and the documentary’s first few minutes grab the viewer’s attention with footage of people beating plush purple dinosaurs and burning old VHS tapes of the show.
As the series progresses, however, it becomes clear that the focus on “Barney bashing” isn’t just for clicks. To delve into Barney’s history, we learn it’s impossible to ignore the ugly side. As the internet took off in the 1990s, anti-Barneyism became almost as big as the show itself, from major news headlines of attacks on people dressed as Barney to lawsuits over copyright infringement.
What’s more, the docuseries doesn’t hide the fact that those directly involved in the show’s production endured harassment and experienced tragedy. Even the show’s creator, Sheryl Leach, who declined to do any interviews for the series, was plagued by Barney-related controversies.
Given the stark contrast between the show’s message of unconditional love and the vehement backlash it received, the docuseries asks a simple question: How could anyone hate a character as loving as Barney? A few nods to historical context offer some explanation: The ’90s cultural obsession with cynicism and irony clashed with the innocence and perpetual smiles on the show, so adults could only see it as, at best, annoying and, at worst, insulting or dangerous.
The film also glosses over what is probably the most straightforward explanation for why people hated the purple dinosaur: “Barney & Friends” wasn’t made for ’90s adults; it was made for preschool children — and they loved it. Adults could kick and scream all they wanted, but the show was a great success.
Thankfully, the docuseries doesn’t stop there. Its golden insight stems from the stories of those who started loving “Barney” and then fell into dark places because of it.
Several former child actors admit that after leaving the show, they resorted to drugs, alcohol, or violence to fit in and avoid the “Barney kid” label. Parents who once found the friendly purple dinosaur the perfect form of child entertainment turned against him once they felt they had to compete with him for their child’s attention. And in the most dramatic scenario, Patrick Leach, whose mother created the show specifically for him, grew up to commit a violent crime that earned him a 15-year prison sentence.
Given these tragedies, the series raises another critical question: Why don’t the show’s lessons stick with its core audience in adulthood? None of the interviewees could come up with a coherent answer, but in the end, their accounts hint at one: Barney’s world depicted a happy family, but it could never replace one.
This fact makes Sheryl Leach’s story one of tragic irony. The woman who started as a stay-at-home mom, eager to create something entertaining for her son, transformed into a breadwinning career woman who was often away from home. She was known to refer to herself as “Barney’s mom,” so when the Barney bashing took off, she described the pain as if she were watching one of her children being attacked.
We see the same tension in the other “Barney” lovers-turned-haters. A dad grows jealous of the dinosaur when his daughter watches the show instead of greeting him at the door. No doubt the show captivates the preschool mind, but that level of obsession doesn’t happen unless a parent enables the behavior by keeping the TV on.
As for the “Barney” cast members, we aren’t told much about their family relationships. But given that their entire world was on the production set while they were on the show, it isn’t surprising that they felt alone as soon as they left it.
Without directly addressing it, all of these incidents point to the fact that parents — not Barney or any other character — are and must be the number one source of love and education for their children. And as every tragedy in the documentary demonstrates, once Barney’s fantasy family love took up more time than the real thing, he became a source of strife.
By the end of the docuseries, it’s unclear whether “Barney & Friends” was overall a good or bad thing for society. But what is clear is that while any child can do with or without simulated love on a screen, no child can do without the irreplaceable love of a parent.
“I Love You, You Hate Me” is available to stream on Peacock Premium.