With Babylon, Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) has become the latest feature director to enter the realm of TV (though he will primarily be serving as the series’ executive producer). The London-based Babylon, which will air as part of the SundanceTV’s original lineup (as a co-production with the British company Nightjack), has been branded as a “workplace satire,” but throughout its six, hourlong episodes it becomes far more of a drama about the gap between reality and public perception in government, the police force, and the media. Hit the jump for more.
In the last few years, SundanceTV has distinguished itself by producing bold and often difficult original content. Rectify, The Honorable Woman, Top of the Lake — each of these shows have been dark, dramatic entries to the television landscape. In comparison, at first, Babylon looks like something different. Though it deals with incidents of prison riot, a wrongful shooting death and fights between the police commissioner and city hall — none of which is light fare — Babylon‘s approach begins as a satire, sending up those who try to “manage” these incidents through media spin.
The series revolves, in part, around an (improbably beautiful) American communications director, Liz (Brit Marling), who has been hired by the London Metropolitan Police to help improve their image. Splintering off from this story, which finds Liz battling the icy commissioner Richard Miller (James Nesbitt) and workplace nemesis Finn (Bertie Carvel), are several stories about the police force on the ground level. In one, a young officer (Nick Blood) suffers from PTSD after a wrongful shooting, while elsewhere, a group of traffic wardens wax poetic about Battleship Potemkin. In one of the more far-reaching arcs, police officer Robbie (Adam Deacon) is at first antagonized by, and then (falsely) befriended by a ruthless documentarian (Daniel Kaluuya) who is looking to expose and bring the entire police force down.
If this doesn’t sounds like comedy, or even satire, it’s because it really isn’t. Babylon‘s first episode has some very funny moments, but in no way does it define the series. As the series progresses, riots spill out onto the streets (regarding the shooting of a young, unarmed black man by police), a sniper runs loose in the capital, and a major character commits suicide. The verbal assaults that the characters lob at one another are foul, and often hatefully charged. Then something oddly hilarious will happen, like the rioting prisoners demanding pizzas, with specifications about how the toppings should be handled, and Babylon turns into a different kind of show.
Babylon‘s acerbic wit and cavalcade of references will feel familiar to fans of the British political satire series The Thick of It, and its cousin film In The Loop, since Babylon is written by two TTOIveterans, Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, along with Jon Brown (Misfits). Those series had their own gray pall of governmental wrongdoing, but Babylon is even darker. It’s also far funnier in other moments. Essentially, it doesn’t seem to know quite what it is, which adds up unfortunately to being a major flaw.
What’s also interesting to note about Babylon is that it is deeply, deeply British. American-friendly posh London accents are gone, and passing references to James Herriot and the police detectives of the 1970s West Midlands may go unappreciated. But even die-hard Anglophiles may find it difficult to really care about issues of privatization, and how it affects the institution of Scotland Yard. Yet, the series makes it a cornerstone of its political posturing.
Babylon is dark and strange, but can also be engrossing and wonderfully funny (and has an incredible cast of familiar British comedians who are all playing against type). Like SundanceTV’s other series, it may not be an easy binge-watch, per say, but it would be wrong to also say that getting through it will necessarily feel worth the challenge. Its finale feels like just another episode, ending the first season on a note of vast uncertainty, which, I suppose, is really what Babylon is all about.
Babylon premieres Thursday, January 8th at 10 p.m. EST on SundanceTV.