Babylon is back for a proper series, picking up where the pilot left off. Liz is in situ as Communications Director for London Police and relations are still strained with her deputy Finn. Lunkhead Robbie’s about to join the firearms squad. SCO19 officer Warwick’s struggling to keep it together. And the Police Commissioner continues to take everything in his stride, as relaxed as “a cokey meerkat on an electric fence.” So, business as usual then….
In this clever, confident and hugely entertaining opener, the force are called in to deal with a “disturbance” / “severe disturbance” / “riot” at a young offenders’ institute run by a private company, putting the privatisation of prisons and other public services under fresh media scrutiny. Cue a little in-fighting at HQ, a mini-war with the Mayor’s office and a lot of swearing about it.
In fact, at the risk of sounding a bit precious, I thought there was a little too much swearing – obviously it’s fine it if it feels organic (my own language can be less than pristine on a regular basis), but there were a number of lines in this ep where it sounded like the writers were shoehorning in some imaginative cursing to try and sound edgy, rather than because it was something the character would actually say. That’s a very small quibble though. In general this was very intelligent, very, very funny satire in the vein of Drop the Dead Donkey, albeit with a significantly higher level of affection and respect for police and public service than Donkey had for journalists. Babylon pokes plenty of fun at everyone in it, yes, but the more pointed, more sophisticated barbs are aimed at politics, politicians and the media, and there’s a lot of heart at the root of the show; a sense that the makers genuinely care about the public sector and the rank and file who work in it, which makes it a much more thoughtful, much more thought-provoking watch.
Oddly, Liz, the PR prodigy who’s our point of entry into the story, has become the least engaging character, her chemistry with Richard and her war with Finn by far the most interesting things about her, but no matter. James Nesbitt’s Commissioner, Bertie Carvel’s slimeball Finn and Nicola Walker’s Assistant Commissioner Sharon are all magnificent, and I really, really liked this ep; I might not review Babylon again but I’m looking forward to watching it.
American indie actress, writer and film-maker Brit Marling plays Liz, headhunted by the Chief Constable of London’s police force (for some reason, the show refuses to call it the Met) to run their communications department and ideally transform their relationship with both the press and the public. Liz has plenty of solid principles and trendy ideas about how to execute this daunting task, but her first day tests all of them as a sniper terrorises London, a subordinate plots against her and a documentary crew don’t know when to stop.
Babylon isn’t just about Liz, though; channel 4’s (sort of, if you ignore all the adverts) feature-length pilot takes in a huge sprawl of characters from different sections of the force – uniform, armed units, the top brass etc – with a horde of recognisable actors popping up all over the place. Jill Halfpenny is one of the uniform cops, Nicola Walker one of the mid-ranking chiefs, Paterson Joseph the Deputy Chief Constable… there are plenty more, but far and away the star of the thing is James Nesbitt as the smart, sharp, devious but probably fundamentally decent Chief Constable. Nesbitt is one of those actors who crops up in a load of things I’m not fussed about so I wouldn’t have counted myself as one of his fans before but he is absolutely fantastic in this – much more compelling and interesting than Liz herself, who’s nice but a bit wet. Maybe she’ll grow into it.
As far as the show itself is concerned, though, the pilot tries too hard to do too many things, veering as it does between often farcical black humour, political satire, genuine horror and honest-to-goodness human emotion. It’s also way too long; had they shaved off twenty minutes or so (maybe ditch the look-how-hip-we-are TED talk and that stupid Jackass-ish raid with the semi-naked man at the beginning?), it would have made for a much tighter and more cohesive first outing.
But putting its flaws (and the sloooow start) aside, there’s a lot to like here and I eventually found myself really enjoying it – plenty of funny moments, plenty of cynical ones and even a few shocking and sad ones. I’m glad it’s getting a series later in the year. Especially since I assume the forthcoming episodes will be shorter and, after this practice run, the writers will hopefully have more of a handle on the tone and the scale of the show. Yes, the pilot wasn’t perfect, but if they focus on sorting those two things out, the series could be great.