Bo Burnham’s Inside tackles depression like real world Evangelion

One of the things that comes with a childhood in Florida is a working knowledge of the mechanics of hurricanes. The simple version I learned as a kid is almost mundane: the temperature over the ocean rises enough (80 degrees Fahrenheit) for an accumulation of warm air to rise as cool air replaces it. That accumulation fuels thunderstorms, which gather around areas of low pressure, and the Earth’s Coriolis Effect helps the budding storm system spin. With enough wind and water vapor, the storm will build, a perfectly natural phenomenon, and perfectly destructive. Every year, June through October, hurricane season looms, with the chance that a superstorm will crash into your life and leave it in shambles. There’s really only one thing you can do about it: Stay inside.

The Netflix comedy special Bo Burnham’s Inside doesn’t really specify why he, or anyone else, had to spend a year stuck indoors. He doesn’t have to. Every soul on Earth has lived through the coronavirus pandemic, and it’s obvious that the ensuing special — a one-man show set in a single room, full of darkly satirical songs, somber monologues, and dazzling production — exists because of it. But none of Burnham’s jokes or provocations really have anything to do with the still-ongoing crisis. Instead, he’s focused on the overwhelming array of disasters that were already in focus long before the United States had its first COVID-19 case. Problems like, in his words: “systematic oppression… income inequality… the other stuff.”

Mostly though, Inside is about what happens when a life lived online hits 30, and what years of the human experience reduced to “content” for others to “engage” with has done to us. Burnham’s perspective is unusual: As one of the very first YouTube stars, he became famous for singing funny songs in his bedroom as a teenager. Inside isn’t really pandemic art as much as it is internet art. The room his onscreen persona is confined in is literally one he chose to be in. It’s the guest house of his Los Angeles home, the same one that appeared in the coda to his last special, Make Happy. In Inside, though, he uses it as a physical representation of online spaces. A white woman’s Instagram page, an overstimulated carnival barker mimicking your social media feed, a laser-fueled power-ballad reminder of Jeff Bezos’ insatiable wealth and overreach — this is the digital womb we’ve crawled back into.

Photo: Netflix

Inside is a staggering work of depressioncore in which Burnham contemplates the inertia of our collective doom. He is, he notes often, a white guy who wants to do comedy, but what good will that do? Why does any of this matter in a digital world where everything collapses into everything else, where influencer parties, police brutality, medical crowdfunding, and the latest Star Wars prequel meme all collide on the same timeline? What has that done to our psyche, that we can take all that in and keep scrolling?

Hideaki Anno’s seismic anime Neon Genesis Evangelion features an idea called the Absolute Terror Field, or A.T. Field. It’s a metaphysical force that all sentient beings possess, an invisible barrier keeping your ego and sense of self distinct from everyone else’s. In the psychology of Evangelion, the abject fear of being known is part of what makes us individuals, forming a literal barrier that holds us together. It’s also the force by which the world is doomed: the series’ antagonists, the giant monsters known as Angels, possess extraordinarily powerful A.T. Fields that make them nigh-indestructible.

The series is about the struggle to stop these monsters, and the messed-up way Earth fights them: by putting children in hybrid machine-monsters called EVAs, isolated in womb-like capsules that let them control the EVA units, but also make them feel everything the EVAs feel. Inside the EVA Unit-01, protagonist Shinji Ikari is alone with his thoughts and it terrifies him, even more than the doom outside of his capsule. He can try to save the world, but what’s the point, when he hates himself? The defining image of Evangelion isn’t the giant EVA Unit-01, it’s Shinji, curled up inside it, crushed by the weight of everything happening outside, and feeling unable to do anything about it.

Inside frequently features Bo Burnham in a similar state: curled up on the floor, slumped on a stool, or with his head hanging heavily over his keyboard. His anguish is the point, and the tragedy of it all is subtly suggested throughout various songs: He’d probably be isolated and despairing anyway, no pandemic lockdown necessary. “Look who’s inside again,” he muses during one song, and in the special’s most gutting moment, he talks about a five-year performance hiatus that began due to panic attacks and declining mental health. He finally seemed to be on the upswing, until early 2020, when “the funniest thing happened.”

Burnham shares this anecdote in the middle of “All Eyes on Me,” possibly the angriest song on the special. There’s no clever joke tucked into its lyrics. It’s three parts mourning for the performance life he almost got back and lost, and one part nihilism, served up with blue stage lights.

“You say the ocean’s rising/Like I give a shit?/You say the world is ending/Honey, it already did” goes the song’s bridge, awash in distortion. “Got it? Good. Now get inside.”

No one is built for this chaotic deluge, which is part and parcel with online life. If the internet is, as Burnham characterizes it in “Welcome to the Internet,” “a little bit of everything, all of the time,” then nihilism becomes one rationalresponse. Logging off doesn’t really feel like an option, not the internet contains everything we legitimately need to know and everyone we want to feel close to. But there’s no clean break, no way to curate the desirable parts from the chaos, at least not without tools that often take a career of working in online spaces to learn about. There will always be more awful things, constantly happening, and most of us hear about these things at a much higher volume than we hear about anyone working to use the internet for activism and meaningful change. AS with Shinji in the EVA, the instrument by which we can change things is also the source of our torment. Overcoming that dynamic feels about as possible as defying the laws of nature.

We were talking about hurricanes.

A hurricane’s eye is its most fascinating feature. On dry land, the core of the storm, around which the entire system revolves, is an area of momentary tranquility. For a space of 20 to 40 miles on average, there is calm, even as the chaos remains in sight.

And this is why when I watch Robert Bo Burnham in a room that symbolizes the internet, I think of hurricanes, with their calm eyes that can trick you into normalcy, even as the storm destroys everything around them. I’m Burnham’s age, and like him, I was raised in a world where doom was supposed to be far off, only to discover in adulthood that wasn’t true. The end is here, and we log onto it every day. We scroll through destruction and tragedy and jokes, all safely inside. And we’ve been doing it for a long time.

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