I’ve been dreading the arrival of COVID art — movies and TV shows and novels that mulch the slowly ebbing pandemic for “meaning” — but if half of what we get is as good as “Bo Burnham: Inside,” we may be in for a renaissance. Ostensibly a comedy special made over a year of lockdown, “Inside,” which went up on Netflix June 3, is actually a fascinating portrait of a nervous breakdown — or a performance of one, which Burnham convincingly argues has become the same thing. Imagine Dostoevsky writing “Notes from Underground” as a quarantined millennial with a 5G connection, and you’re most of the way there.
Burnham is the rare performer who hasn’t just grown up in public but matured as an entertainer, a thinker, and a human being. He made a teenage splash 15 years ago, during the first days of YouTube, with parody songs and viral videos beamed out from his bedroom in Hamilton — goofy kid stuff that crossed the line of taste in ways that have made the older Burnham, when those early clips are shown on talk shows, visibly cringe.
He did stand-up for a while and then went off to write and direct one of the best movies of 2018, “Eighth Grade,” which parsed the social-media theater of the middle school years with love and horror. More recently Burnham turned up as the nice-guy love interest of “Promising Young Woman,” sweet and ironic and just as guilty as the rest. As a persona, he is both charmingly funny and reflexively neurotic, and he plays in our online hall of mirrors with a skill that can take your breath away.
“Inside” charts the months of his pandemic-era unraveling, Burnham clean-cut and shaven at the start and a hollow-eyed Robinson Crusoe at the end. Among other things, the show is a concert film, with the star performing self-lacerating ditties in a tiny home studio. The catch? The songs are great, brilliantly produced earworms that Burnham sings in a fluid and confident voice. (Soundtrack release, please.) They cover the gamut from comic skewerings of clueless parents (“I’ma FaceTime with my mom tonight”) and social-media influencers (“Is this heaven or is it just a white woman’s Instagram?”) to darker musings on modern life (“Welcome to the Internet, what would you prefer?/Would you like to fight for civil rights or tweet a racist slur?”). Numbers like “Sexting,” “I’m Turning 30,” and “I’m Problematic” are mordant (but catchy!) tunes of enlightened narcissism that chip away at the comedian’s self-entitlement until, like a 21st-century Wile E. Coyote, he’s running in midair.
That recursiveness — Burnham’s relentless questioning of his own motivations, assumptions, and even selfhood — makes “Inside” a key text for the online era and a harrowingly moving personal essay on depression and disintegration. In one scene, the comedian becomes a figure in a computer game, controlled by a Twitch streamer (also Burnham) and forced to cry, laugh, and stand in a corner. In another, he makes a “react video” to one of his performances, then a react video to the react video, then a react video to the react video to the react video, and so on into a fractal M.C. Escher hell.
The result is a modern-day horror movie whose version of “the killer is in the house” is Burnham’s exhausted acknowledgment that “self-awareness does not absolve anybody of anything.” But is it comedy? Convincingly enough in the special’s first half to set up the psychological theater of the final scenes. Burnham even asks himself, “Can one be funny when stuck in a room?” The larger question is whether one can be funny or even sane when stuck in one’s head, as so many of us have been for over a year. The title of “Bo Burnham: Inside” ricochets in any number of directions, and it spares no one, least of all a generation growing up in a world where there’s “a gift shop at the gun range, a shooting at the mall” and the response to both is a flattened flick of the thumb.
BO BURNHAM: INSIDE
Written, directed by, and starring Bo Burnham. Available on Netflix. 87 minutes. TV-MA (language)