When most people think about Mark Duggan, Plebgate and the looming Hillsborough enquiry the idea of a comedy-drama about how the Metropolitan police tackle public scandal is not the first thing that comes to mind, but that’s exactly what Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, the indefatigable geniuses behind Peep Show and Fresh Meat, have done with Babylon, an off-beat satire set in the Communications offices of Scotland Yard.
For a cop show this is decisively short on crime solving, in fact there’s nary a detective insight during the feature length runtime, with Babylon coming across as more of a police procedural The Thick of It, poking fun at senior officers’ shameful publicity posturing (battling the Mayor over credit for a reduction in gun crime), rather than a British Brooklyn Nine Nine, which likes a regular turnover of jokes and a neat resolution to a crime.
The plot centres on Brit Marling’s PR guru Liz Garvey, who’s tasked with giving the Met a public image face-lift and bringing transparency to the force. Only the higher-ups, like James Nesbitt’s Chief Constable Richard Miller, don’t like to give-out specifics; in fact, they spend most of their time trying to obfuscate the issue to the point where even they don’t know what’s going on. Matters are further complicated when her first day descends into utter chaos as news of a lone gunman terrorizing the capital rapidly escalates beyond all control.
But it’s the Met’s constant scrapes with the world of modern communications that causes Garvey most grief; twitter feeds, rolling news and cameraphones proving to be a ubiquitous thorn in her side, constantly pulling attention from any attempts to identify the sniper.
The show packs a lot into its 90 minute runtime, stretching the plot’s focus to all areas of the police force – monitoring a political protest, an armed officer returning to duty after a fatal shooting, a team of uniformed officers trying to keep it together in front of a documentary filmmaker – which sometimes works to its detriment as events starting to become muddled halfway through.
The off-beat moments of biting satire come with a heavy-dose of drama, with Babylon tackling the kind of high-stakes situations that suit director Danny Boyle’s kinetic style. Boyle wastes no time in stamping his trademark thumping rhythm on the action, kicking off with a late-night raid that switches between hand-held, night-vision and cameraphone angles, and ends when police taser a half-naked man and his dog.
Brit Marling puts in a confidant turn as the idealistic new Director of Communications, taking no time to settle in as she sets about asserting her authority over her male colleagues with her quick-wit: “a big slice of gun crime reduction pie.” However, Babylon also boasts an impressive British ensemble, including the brilliant Johnny Sweet as a hapless Superintendent who can’t help but steal every scene he’s in with lines like: “Five [shootings] sounds like half of ten, whereas four is… closer to two.”
The feature length runtime is a shade too long, causing some of the tension to dissipate in the middle, and it could’ve done without the suggestion of a budding romance between Garvey and Nesbitt’s Miller, which feels like a tired and unnecessary genre trope. Otherwise, it looks like Baines and Armstrong have yet another hit on their hands with this timely satire that only serves to strengthen their reputation as the best writers in UK television.
Click here to watch the trailer for Babylon