When the pilot for Babylon, the police-procedural comedy drama from the combined talents of Peep Show creators Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong and British filmmaker Danny Boyle, first aired way back in February it felt caught between tones.
The plot had elements of farce and a rapid-fire collection of absurdly funny lines, but it also had the drive of a thriller and came with a lot to say about the eroding relationship between the police and the people they must protect.
In short, it was a muddled hodgepodge that never quite found its stride – owing greatly to a testing 95 minute running time.
Now back for a full series, which began on Channel 4 last night, the tone is much better balanced. The gags are as razor sharp as ever (“Shut up you fucking yogurt.”) but the volume has been dialled back to draw a closer focus on the communications minefield that surrounds the Metropolitan Police – a force that commands less trust than it has in its entire history, as Ralph Brown’s smug Deputy Mayor happily informs Police Commissioner Richard Miller (James Nesbitt).
For those that missed it first time around, Babylon splits its time between three tiers of The Met: the ‘banter boys’ in an Armed Response Unit who help one of their own get back on the horse (almost-literally) after he’s involved in a mistaken shooting; a clutch of the Territorial Support Group who try (and fail) to present a veneer of professionalism in front of an intrusive documentary filmmaker; and City Hall, where new spin queen Liz Garvey (Brit Marling) has to navigate the political bureaucracy of London policing.
In style, Babylon is closest to The Thick of It – which both writers worked on – in the way it takes a sweary satirical swipe at everything from reporters’ lines of questioning to social media to build a picture of modern policing.
Last night’s episode focused on the privatization of police services – a poisoned chalice for the force where they can’t afford to maintain all services but see handing the work over to under-prepared contractors as a dereliction of duty. This point is hilariously exemplified in a hapless exchange between a private rep and two senior officers as they try to agree on a wording for a youth prison riot: “It’s definitely a disturbance…”
For all the talk surrounding the show’s off-screen talent, though, it’s the superb cast in front of it that make Babylon an entertaining watch. Nesbitt owns each and every one of his scenes as Miller, taking the lion’s share of funny lines and delivering them with a pitch-perfect precision (“I sleep like a cokey meerkat on an electric fence. That’s me relaxing!”). Bertie Carvel, too, is excellent of Liz’s smarmy, scheming deputy, Finn.
And Brit Marling is fantastic as driven PR manager Liz Garvey, easily carrying off her aggressively uncompromising professionalism; but unlike most female leads right now, Liz is given a charming vulnerability as we see how she is uncomfortably aware of her colleague’s perceptions – an occupational hazard, it seems.
The only drawback to Liz’s character is her disastrously rote personal life, which is played as though it’s a role in a trashy chick-flick. We first see her gate-crashing a girls’ cocktail night and getting embarrassingly drunk, then overhearing what the girls really think of her while hiding in the loo, and finally she leaves an awkward message on her ex’s answer phone because she’s feeling lonely in the big city.
Yet it seems churlish to nit-pick a series that has made great strides since its slightly underwhelming pilot. Bain and Armstrong have now honed in on the perfect balance of comedy and drama without having to dilute the elements that make the show enjoyable, and in the process have brought the cop-comedy into the 21st Century.
Click here to watch the trailer for Babylon