Babylon. By Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong. It’s telling that’s how the show is billed in its credits: a rare instance where the writers are given headline status above a director and cast. And what a director and cast it is. Danny Boyle is at the helm, while James Nesbitt plays to the home crowd opposite American Brit Marling.
Marling plays Instagram’s former PR guru, Liz Garvey, hired by the Met to come in and clean up their image after Nesbitt’s Commissioner Richard Miller is impressed by her TED Talk. Name-checking two internet giants inside the opening 5 minutes? That gives you an idea of how zeitgeisty Babylon wants to be – a trademark of Bain and Armstrong’s work on In the Loop and Four Lions. This is up-to-date, in-your-face, tweeting-your-mum cutting edge. The buzz word of the day? Transparency.
Marling, who has impressed so much in Another Earth, Sound of My Voice, Arbitrage and The East, is perfectly cast as the whip-smart social media expert with her head in the cloud – the exact opposite of communication veteran, Finn (Bertie Carvel), whose down and dirty approach rubs Liz up the wrong way. Meanwhile, on the ground, Matt (Psychoville’s Daniel Kaluuya) is following a patrol for a TV documentary, capturing up-for-it firearms applicant Office Robbie (a suitably annoying and brash Adam Deacon) on camera.
It’s only a matter of time before London falls victim to a string of shootings, as a sniper in a van takes out a Police Community Support Officer. The result is chaos, as the Met’s old and new PR tactics muddy the water for everyone. “Is that the truth?” almost becomes a catchphrase for Liz. “That is the current position based on the facts we have in front of us at the moment,” comes the slippery reply from the Commissioner.
Quick to deny anything on record, Nesbitt makes for an enigmatic chief, both sinister and cryptic but willing to take time out (and responsibility) to offer condolences to a family. He’s supported by an excellent chorus of hapless assistants and manipulative number twos – Paterson Joseph’s Assistant Commissioner steals scenes with a knowing nod or shake of his head.
But while the cast are strong, Babylon suffers from a simple problem: it’s not very funny. There are laughs, but this is far from In the Loop’s guffaw-filled territory. Unable to decide whether to go for the giggles or the gut punches, Bain and Armstrong’s signature brand of satire is, for the first time, caught in an awkward middle ground. Danny Boyle directs some sequences with typical panache (a bathroom shot of Finn reflected in two mirrors lingers in the mind) but doesn’t leave much of an impression, letting the words do the talking – as the credits say, this is Bain and Armstrong’s show. The confused tone, then, is never really cleared.
What the show does manage, though, is to remain realistic throughout. You may not chuckle at what’s on screen but you don’t doubt a second: this is a modern police force, where officers engage in racist banter, lie to the press and bash down front doors before tasering dogs. The writing pair have a knack for lifting the lid on people, both those in public power and those in their dressing gowns. The conclusion is always the same: that deep down, no one really has a clue what’s going on or what to do about it. In a muddled framework such as the Met, where everyone tries to pass the buck, the catastrof*cks are magnified to a depressingly believable level. That gives a tense undercurrent to a gripping climax, in which guns, video footage and social media all collide.
As Finn and Liz trade blows and Nesbitt’s boss looks on with a stern frown, the topical set-up clearly has huge potential for a complete series – it’s no surprise that based on this pilot episode, Babylon has already been commissioned for a full run later this year. If the runtime is reduced to 60 minutes, rather than this loose 95 minutes, the faster pace might inspire a higher gag rate. For now, Babylon has the glossy look of high quality television, it just can’t decide which type of television it wants to be: comedy or drama. For all the talk of transparency behind the scenes, the public-facing product is rather opaque. Which, in a way, is only too apt.
Season 1 of Babylon is available on Netflix UK, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription.
Photo: Dean Rogers / Channel 4