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Babylon, Ep. 1.03: “Thameside Center” takes the series a big step forward

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Babylon, Season 1: Episode 3 – “Thameside Center”
Written by Sam Bain
Directed by Jon S. Baird
Airs Thursday nights at 10 on SundanceTV

Apologies for the crude pun in the subtitle, but the tragic event that concludes “Thameside Center” really does move Babylon into some interesting territory. To this point in its short run, the series has excelled during moments of quick-witted comedy. The writing in that department shows experience and understanding of natural humor as well as command over punchlines. But “Thameside Center,” while still containing pieces of that comedic know-how, is actually more powerful as blunt piece of dramatic work. The term “dramedy” gets batted around a lot in TV writing as a catchall for a show that incorporates elements of both drama and comedy. No other recent show that I can remember, however, deserves that classification more than Babylon as a means of trying to resolve an accurate tone. It’s not just that Babylon has comedic and dramatic elements–many shows do, but they lean in a particular direction with their styles. Babylon kind of needs that term applied to it, because its own tone and style form a unique combination that leans more towards neither traditional genre.

The classification might not be that important or interesting to some people, but I think it’s what makes a lot of “Thameside Center” work, especially regarding Miller’s suicide. The inclusion of “Into Dust” (which is still intrinsically linked to The O.C.‘s pilot for me) lends the kind of weight to the sequence that is reserved for a more self-serious show during a major point in the story. Juxtaposed with Inglis’ story, though, which is the most laugh-out-loud ridiculous thread about a bald guy accidentally “stealing” shampoo from a shop while receiving an important call, shows how effective tonal transition can be. The episode really does run the gamut of emotions in all areas of its already-developed cast of characters. People continue to take the piss out of Robbie (colloquially and literally, sadly) while Warwick’s struggles to regain his confidence in the field persist. Robbie’s story veers from being hilarious to sad, if you spend much time thinking about it. On the one hand, spending 700 pounds on a bow after buying into the idea that the queen has a secret service of archers that he ought to apply for is having fun at his expense for our sake in a harmless way. On the other hand, Matt takes advantage of him in a more harmful way at the same time that Miller is fighting off defamation. They’re a weird pair to compare to one another, but it’s an interesting point to be drawn that exploiting character is Babylon‘s way of showing power and success.

If there’s one area of “Thameside Center” which is a little rushed or underdeveloped, it’s the relationship between Davina and Clarkey. It’s not that their connection needs to be made more explicit or anything, and both performers are fine together in their scenes, but because so much of these first few episodes have focused on Miller and Liz as central figures, the added drama of the impending dissolution of Davina’s relationship with Banjo feels just like that–added drama. We’ve not spent much time with Banjo and Davina, other than a solid scene in last week’s episode that showed some of that distancing, and for that to really feel of-a-piece with the rest of Babylon, more engagement is necessary.

That, of course, is a criticism of an episode that features one of the series’ main characters dying, though, so most things might get eclipsed. James Nesbitt has been excellent in his role as Miller, doing biting comedic scenes in the workplace and showing his handling of Miller’s private life here with gravitas. It isn’t just those final minutes, either. It’s also scenes like his congratulating Liz after he approves her Metwork idea and their conversation together as he hesitates to admit his involvement with his sister-in-law. There’s hesitancy and weight-of-the-world qualities in his performance that somehow manage to humanize Miller more fully than I could have anticipated, which–of course–makes me want to see more of him. But this is the logical path for his character to take at this point, and it opens the door for a shake-up as Liz tries to get her media outlet off the ground. Babylon‘s care at understanding perceptions of authority figures goes far in “Thameside Center” to show how the media can become truly dangerous. What’s surprising about that is that it still doesn’t feel like Babylon is being disingenuous, because you also get people like Matt’s boss coming in an laying down moral boundaries with news pieces. That respect, in turn, earns that of the viewer and makes one wonder which group is going to come out looking the best in the second half of the season.

– Sean Colletti


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