Babylon, Season 1: Episode 1 – “Episode One”
Written by Jesse Armstrong
Directed by Jon S. Baird
Airs Thursday nights at 10 on SundanceTV
Coming off a fantastic summer miniseries in The Honourable Woman, SundanceTV has imported a British crime series co-created by Oscar-winner Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire). Unlike most series in the saturated the genre, however, Babylon is not a dark, gritty procedural or whodunnit but a refreshing satirical dramedy from a network that could use a bit of lightening up. After a collection of mostly excellent dramas, the relief in watching Babylon comes just as much from its interesting take on a police story as it does from the shift in tone in SundanceTV’s lineup.
Fans of The Thick of It (and In the Loop) will be pleased to learn that veteran writer Jesse Armstrong brings the same biting comedy from his work with Armando Iannucci to Babylon. The series follows Liz Garvey (Brit Marling, Another Earth), a PR executive working with Police Commissioner Richard Miller (James Nesbitt, The Hobbit) in his battle against the privatization of police security in London. While not strictly a satirical comedy, the premiere is laugh-out-loud funny when it’s trying to be thanks to several convincing performances from both lead and supporting actors. That said, much of the material is sincere and unfortunately topical in its look at the three-way relationship between the police, the media and the public.
When an officer named Warwick shoots a criminal he does not know is unarmed, footage of the event is leaked, causing public reaction and paranoia in Warwick for his own safety. Simultaneously, a documentary filmmaker named Matt rides along during a prison riot and outbreak with the intent to use the footage for his own purposes rather than going through the proper police channels. Both of these subplots in the premiere gain a somber narrative layer considering contemporary conversations about police shootings and the media’s relationships with them, but neither attempts a definitive crack at passing judgment. Instead, both events fit firmly into Babylon‘s comedic vision as fellow police officers exert some tough love on their coworkers’ unfortunate circumstances.
Liz and Miller remain at the heart of the episode, though, and it is likely that viewers will gravitate to both characters more than anything else. Nesbitt pulls off the hardass boss with aplomb, and the episode might be just as entertaining if it were 45 minutes of Miller berating his underlings and nemeses. Criticized for not adapting to modern attitudes towards policing, Miller is also the traditional figure trying to be persuaded by Liz’s forward-thinking thoughts on how best to represent the police in the media. Liz, an American, immediately sticks out in the cast, allowing Marling’s out-of-place demeanor to feel totally natural within the episode. With only a couple small moments devoted to looking at Liz’s personal life, defining her in the context of the workplace at first is a great writing decision, since she bounces off other members of the police force so well. Elsewhere, Jon S. Baird (Filth) directs the episode, doing great work during the prison break, few skirmishes and a meeting to examine and question Miller’s police force.
If the premiere feels a bit confusing for some viewers, it may be because the pilot episode (directed by Boyle) is not being aired. However, the premiere still functions well in terms of providing the necessary information to make it work on the plot level. The quick pace of Armstrong’s writing, like his work on The Thick of It, may require some getting used to (fans of Veep, though, will feel totally at home). Once it settles in, though, Babylon winds up being a thoroughly enjoyable piece of entertainment in its first of six outings.
– Sean Colletti