Babylon review – Episode One (Pilot)

Babylon, Channel 4Babylon had noble enough intentions and I’m glad they made it but it didn’t quite work as a form of entertainment. It was too slow, too large in scope, and not funny enough. Creators Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong have writing credits on some great British satire, including The Thick of It, In the Loop and Four Lions, but Babylon fell short of those standards.

The show followed various sections of the Metropolitan Police as they dealt with a shooting spree. A new head of communications, freshly hired from Instagram, marshalled the PR side of things, an armed response officer struggled with his mental health and a police unit dealt with the day-to-day ground work while being filmed by an in-house videographer.

The Metropolitan Police are rife for satire. They have a horrible record of pushing spin and outright lies in the aftermath of major incidents. Babylon was best when addressing this side of things. Liz Garvey, the new communications head, initially came across as a stereotypical bullshitting American, full of management speak and naive to the realities of daily PR work at a police force. For all her esoteric language though, she was actually trying to break through a corrosive culture at the Met of spin and false leaking. If anything, everyone else she worked with were the bullshitters. ‘A good job well done with supreme professionalism,’ the commissioner called his inept operation to capture the sniper. Liz’s belief was that the Met’s standard approach to public relations confuses, complicates and worsens problems. Transparency is the way to go, even if that results in a negative reaction in the short-term.

Babylon also focused on the minutia of police work in order to illustrate how massive fuck-ups take place. In the Loop did the same thing for the UK’s stumble towards war, while Four Lions similarly looked in detail at the human behaviour behind terrorism. That latter film also, briefly, examined the incompetency of policing terrorism, and Armstrong, a co-writer on that film, seems to have picked up that thread here. There was a great scene near the end of Babylon were a raid on the sniper took place without any senior official actually making a decision to do so. James Nesbitt, playing the police commissioner, stood in front of a buffering Skype connection while everyone passed the buck, leaving a junior officer to hesitantly stumble events forward alone.

The show was really inconsistent though; fractured and wandering and without much focus. There seemed to be some point about technology being made but all I could get from it was how difficult it is to manage PR in the modern world where everyone has a camera, and that’s hardly an original point to make. The scenes with the ordinary police unit made an okay point about how people completely inappropriate for policing get ahead in the service – colleagues and superiors not having the confidence to simply step-up and stop the person’s progression (again, focusing on the human behaviour behind institutional mistakes) – but beyond that, these parts of the show just dragged and wandered aimlessly.

Babylon Channel 4Of course, not everything needs to be making some intellectual point, but the rest of Babylon, away from the intellect, was incredibly lacking. There were very few likable characters. Liz was too off-putting, brisk and egotistical, and her one good aspect – her integrity – never emerged till near the end. The commissioner seemed at times competent, but would then shirk his responsibilities. Probably the two senior police officers being followed by the videographer, and maybe the policeman struggling with his mental health, were the only likeable people in the show, bar peripheral characters like the guy commanding the arms response unit at the siege.

It just wasn’t entertaining. It kept jumping about in tone, from comedy to very serious drama. And it wasn’t funny enough. The satirical high points were things you could appreciate rather than things you’d both laugh out loud at and recognise the intellect in.

If the ending seemed strange, it was because this feature-length episode was the set-up to a full six part series due to start filming this March. I’m really unsure of how it will work as a TV series. If it’s to succeed, I think it will need some major alterations. Babylon tried, and it was smart and interesting in places, but it’s fair to say this was a failed, if intriguing and worthwhile, experiment.

Random notes:

  • Babylon was directed by Danny Boyle, echoing a trend in American drama of getting a big name director in for the pilot. The Daily Telegraph criticised his work here, arguing that the ‘coolness’ was at odds with the very British writing, but I thought it worked, and injected some much needed excitement and pace into the show.
  • The sound wasn’t great, at least on my TV. It was a little too hard at times to work out the dialogue, and the massive burst in noise everytime we cut to the – far too frequent – adverts was incredibly annoying.
  • I’m not sure it was a good idea to include a Boris Johnson lookalike. It dates the show and narrows the scope of the satire to include him. The Thick of It, In the Loop and Four Lions, you’ll notice, didn’t mention any of the real-life targets of their satire.
  • ‘You were right before and you are right now. Two opposite rights.’
  • The sniper scenes were really quite frightening, especially the white van driving past the office.
  • The show might have been too fair minded. Almost every character, every element, was balanced. This is a very realistic approach that can be at odds with satire, which more often than not illustrates the truth via gross exaggeration.
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