With an Oscar, two Best Picture nominations (one of which won), national hero status thanks to the Olympics and an acclaimed stage play in his recent past, Danny Boyle can do pretty much whatever he wants these days (even with the critical and commercial failure of “Trance” coming last year—though the film’s underrated, in this writer’s opinion). So it’s a measure of the draw and cachet of the medium that his latest endeavor comes on the small screen, helming the pilot for new U.K. comedy-drama “Babylon,” which aired on Channel 4 last night ahead of a full series later in the year.
Penned by Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, creators of “Peep Show” and “Fresh Meat” (the pair also co-wrote “Four Lions,” while Bain’s solo credits include “Rev” and “Children’s Hospital,” and Armstrong has worked on “The Thick Of It,” “Veep,” “In The Loop” and “Black Mirror“), the series is an ambitious, top-to-bottom look at London’s Metropolitan Police in the modern era. Thanks to a smart script, a very strong cast and restrained direction, there’s a lot of promise to be found here, though the near-feature-length first episode is uneven enough to indicate that the show’s not quite found its feet yet.
The pilot opens with a glimpse of a TED talk from American PR guru Liz Garvey (indie star Brit Marling), who’s been lured away from her old job at Instagram to move to London and serve as the new Director of Communications at the Met. But her first day on the job is a tricky one. She has a resentful number two, Finn (“Matilda” breakout Bertie Carvel), who thinks he should have got her job. She has to deal with some TV documentarians filming the force, and more importantly, there’s a sniper on the loose, picking victims off at random (including one police officer).
But Liz is only one of the script’s moving parts: directly in her orbit, there’s also weary, decent Commissioner Richard Miller (James Nesbitt), his spikier second-in-command Charles Inglis (Paterson Joseph), brash, but secretly traumatized firearms officer Warwick (Nick Blood), and the lower-rung trio of Clarkey (Cavan Clerkin), Davina (Jill Halfpenny) and Robbie (BAFTA Rising Star winner Adam Deacon), among many others.
The result of its control-room-to-streets scope is a show that rather kicks against expectations. It’s quite different from anything on Armstrong and Bain’s CV before—there are elements, in Liz’s zeitgeist-y namedrops of Twitter and the like, of “Black Mirror,” and it’s vaguely reminiscent of “The Thick Of It,” but it’s a much less cynical, and more dramatic series. And it’s a certainly a far cry from the other recent small-screen police comedy, “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” Instead, it comes across as more like a U.K.-set blend of “Hill Street Blues” and, oddly, the cop-centric elements of “The Wire,” albeit with knob gags.
And as that incongruous description might suggest, the show can feel a little tonally awkward, at least to begin with. There are more broadly comic elements early on (a taser-wielding raid on a naked man, various cop-related banter, glimpses of a PR-boosting show about police dogs), and though it’s fitfully funny, the show feels a little half-formed at first, in part because it has so many characters to get through before it can put the plot into motion. In fact, it sometimes feels like it’s several shows jammed into one: a smart, cynical behind-the-scenes drama in the scenes with Marling and Nesbitt & co at HQ, a more straight-ahead cop show focusing on the firearms squad, and a cops-on-the-street comedy when it deals with Clerkin, Halfpenny and Deacon.
But it’s in the second half, as the Boston-Marathon-bomber-esque search for the sniper ramps up (without becoming a procedural—it’s clear that this isn’t going to be that kind of show), and the stories become more entwined, it becomes more clear what the writers are aiming for: it’s a drama with some comedic elements, rather than the comedy with dramatic elements suggested in the early going. And as it starts to grapple with office politics and heady ideas—it’s clear that an overarching theme of the show is going to be of freedom of information, and whether, in the age of Twitter and 24 hour news, it’s better to be transparent or to try and control the narrative—it becomes something distinctive and very, very promising indeed.
The ground level stuff isn’t quite there yet. Clarkin, Halfpenny and Deacon give some excellent performances, but their storyline, involving hot-tempered firebrand Deacon misbehaving in front of the documentary crew, isn’t self-contained, and it looks to continue as the series picks up again, so it’s hard to say how satisfying it’ll prove. Meanwhile, Blood is also very good, but is stuck with a storyline that’s more generic than most of what we see elsewhere, and hopefully the material goes to new places over time.
In general, the cast, a curious mix of smaller names with comedy backgrounds (stand-up Jonny Sweet and rising-star Daniel Kaluuya are particular scene-stealers) and bigger names like Nesbitt and Marling, are very strong. And it’s the latter who’ll prove somewhat of a Marmite presence for many. Her ethereal screen presence makes her a good fit to be the outsider, but she doesn’t always convince as the ball-busting PR type, though there’s certainly room for her to settle in, and as the script digs into her adversarial relationship with Finn, she really starts to turn on the magic (though hints towards a romance with Nesbitt’s character are a bit eye-rolling, even if we have our fingers crossed that Armstrong and Bain have something more interesting planned for their relationship).
But in general, it’s a pleasure to see the cast get stuck into this material, with Nesbitt, Joseph and Carvel all proving impressive, and Ella Smith, as a nicely ambivalent colleague of Marling, standing out in particular. And the direction wisely keeps the actors front-and-center. Having stylistically reached what most would describe as peak Boyle, for better or worse, with “127 Hours” and “Trance,” the helmer tones it down here, preferring to establish an unflashy docudrama approach that makes it about the people, not flashy camera tricks.
It remains unclear how much of an influence Boyle will have on the show moving forward—the director is handing over the reins to “Filth” helmer Jon S. Baird for the next three episodes of the six episode season (which are yet to film, and won’t air until later in the year)—but the hard work has probably been done. Pilots are always tricky, but hopefully as it goes on, the tonal bumps can be worked out and let the show focus on its most promising elements, of which there are plenty. [B]
U.K. readers can watch the “Babylon” pilot here. There’s no word on where or when the show will air in the U.S. as yet.