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Review: Danny Boyle’s ‘Babylon’ is Startlingly Relevant, Rounded and…Funny?

Review: Danny Boyle's 'Babylon' is Startlingly Relevant, Rounded and...Funny?

As the pipe continues to be primed for the 2015 Oscars, one point you’ll hear over and over again is how topical the Martin Luther King Jr. biography “Selma” is given the recent racially-charged incidents in Missouri, New York and America on the whole. Indeed the film’s peaceful message couldn’t be coming at a better time, but, shockingly, there’s a fictional tale far more pertinent to the discussion, though ineligible for the Academy Awards. Why? Because “Babylon” is a six-part television series.

Co-created by Oscar-winner Danny Boyle, “Babylon” tells the story of a fictional modern day police force that’s lost the trust of its citizens. Much like similar departments across the United States, the London unit is facing serious PR problems after numerous reports regarding police misconduct, brutally and racism have brought into question the men behind the badge. Representing them at the top of the pyramid is Police Commissioner Richard Miller (James Nesbitt), who’s heading into a disciplinary hearing with the mayor and must be prepped by the new head of communications, Liz Garvey (Brit Marling). “Are you using control, Commissioner?” This is the first question posed to Miller after he’s challenged on corruption, racial diversity and the use of lethal force within the department. “Control” is a tricky concept, and “Babylon” isn’t quick to define it or declare who has it — if anyone.

SundanceTV’s new series focuses primarily on Garvey, and the character and actress portraying her is more than up to the challenge. As a bright-eyed up-and-comer, Liz is trying to create a transparent police force amid colleagues who want to hide and cover up everything. They live in fear while she dreams of change as much as she demands it, even when repeatedly faced with leaders who tell her it can’t be done. Her optimistic perspective is unique to a show and a world laden with pessimistic worry and distrust, and it’s invigorating to follow someone so needfully passionate. She’s the leader we want to see making these decisions, even if Liz is far from infallible (a point she makes herself later in the season) and her knowledge far from all-encompassing.

Thankfully for those of us sick of the over-utilized archetype, Lis is no antihero. While undoubtedly a flawed protagonist, Liz’s character is defined by her words, actions and, yes, her gender. It’s progressive to have a female lead in a crime drama, especially one with as much comedy as this. She, and every one of her colleagues portrayed in “Babylon,” are above all else human — a surprising revelation to have after hearing the vehement insults tossed between combatants — making the show a compelling mix of judgements. Sometimes we judge the characters, but equally as often we’re forced to take a hard look at ourselves. 

Among the large ensemble cast — steered by the aforementioned top brass — are a group of beat cops including Warwick (Nick Blood), an officer suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after shooting a civilian on duty. He denies it’s an issue, but his partners are left to pick up his slack and cover for him when he needs breaks or can’t pull the trigger in the line of duty. Joining the team later on is a rookie whose rise in the ranks is being covered by a renegade video journalist. The rookie is blind to being manipulated by the deceitful reporter, and their relationship helps illustrate a growing tension between the media and the police.

This theme of paranoia and perception continues to grow throughout “Babylon.” Each and every character at some point says “that’s the headline,” indicating just how much they have to think about how their actions will be portrayed rather than whether or not they’re the right thing to do. Aided by an undetermined time period sometime in the near-future (or now), this sort of reasoning provides an empathetic bend to every member of “Babylon’s” world. None of them are one-note monsters, as the real-world media is so quick to paint people, though Finn — Liz’s sworn enemy and a representation of the old guard — comes close. His fierce disbelief in people and two-faced behavior make him out to be the “bad guy,” even if Bertie Carvel’s performance lends him enough layers to keep him out of caricature. He really is doing his job to the best of his abilities. It’s just that his abilities aren’t needed in the new world order.

Though it would be easier to see Liz as the unquestioned hero and Finn as her clear adversary, questions abound regarding who’s right, wrong, wise, dumb, selfish and selfless. Danny Boyle — but more so his co-creator Robert Jones and executive producer-lead writer Jesse Armstrong — has created a layered analysis of a failing system, and, true to its satirical inception, he doesn’t let anyone off the hook. Much like “The Newsroom” before it (but trading in its high-handed speechifying for dry-witted barbs), “Babylon” strives to lead by example. It’s smart enough to know it can’t have all the answers, without giving up the search for them. Its world is made up of individual people making decisions guided by their personal lives and professions. Sometimes those two lives don’t blend as well as they should, but understanding that is half the battle — a comprehension alien to anyone who’s watched too much TV news. Nothing is as simple as black versus white, in terms of both race and metaphorical simplicity. 

At one point, a rare moment of honesty is forced between Finn and Liz. They both must decide how to handle a delicate new situation, and when asked what will happen if they proceed in an honest and open fashion, neither can provide an answer. Some members of the department claim the streets will “explode” while others expect relations to immediately improve. We realize as we’re watching the point of the exchange as well as the show in a nutshell: we don’t know what could happen if information is provided accurately and openly because it’s never been tried before. No one knows how a well-informed electorate would respond to a police force held accountable for its actions just as we the people are for our own, but we do know one thing: it’s past time to find out. 

Grade: A

READ MORE: Watch: Brit Marling Heads to TV in Danny Boyle’s ‘Babylon’ Trailer

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