Danny Boyle-directed pilot of Babylon TV show from writers of Peep Show and Fresh Meat is underwhelming
New police comedy-drama from Bain & Armstrong shows no sign of becoming brutal and edgy satire
A fish out of water. It’s one of the oldest storytelling tropes in the book. Babylon drags Liz Garvey (Brit Marling) out of her comfort zone as head of communications at Instagram and plunges her into some murky waters as chief spin doctor for the Metropolitan Police. And within six minutes of this comedy-drama pilot directed by Danny ‘Olympics’ Boyle and scripted by Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong (Peep Show, Four Lions and all that), it’s clear that she has an almighty job on her hands.
A house-raid has the suspect being given a series of shouted yet wholly unclear instructions from three tooled-up riot cops with his ballsy attitude being stunted by a Taser attack on the most sensitive chap-place imaginable. The following day a man is gunned down in a London street and two emergency service vehicles smash into each other as they race to the scene.
Soon, it becomes apparent that you can replace the wannabe, blundering jihadists of Four Lions with the largely ineffectual TAC teams, commanders-in-chief and middle-managers of Babylon. Except it’s a little less subtle. Imagine The Bill’s beat being outsourced to the Keystone Cops and you’re there. Or Malcolm Tucker and co being dispatched from Whitehall and relocated to Scotland Yard.
The Thick of It is a pertinent yardstick for Babylon, given that it has also had the writerly hands of Bain & Armstrong upon it, but mainly for the lampooning tone and sense of a bureaucratic hegemony being whittled down to its inefficient nub, due to one clerical error and admin cock-up too many. But even in their wildest moments, there isn’t a character in The Thick of It who rings a false note; you can wholly believe that Glenn or Terri have been worn down by years of frustrating service to a never-ending stream of incompetent politicos. In Babylon, you only have to point to Robbie, a gung ho rookie cop who you just know wouldn’t last half a morning in the modern-day Met; he’s not so much a bad apple waiting to unravel as a one-man orchard struck down by a virulent strain of Dutch elm disease.
By a higher comparison, Bertie Carvel displays a fine twinge of bitter malice as the Met man who is overlooked in favour of Garvey, and James Nesbitt has nicely judged his measure of dignified impotence that is required to pull off the role of police commissioner Richard Miller. And this organ will continue to trumpet the career of Jonny Sweet, who does his Jonny Sweet thing as Tom, an eager Miller underling who has possibly spotted a dastardly link between the shootings and a high-end health shop: he hasn’t and there won’t be.
But this comedy-drama’s future will probably live or die on how far we want our journey with Liz Garvey to last. In this pilot episode, there’s a little too much in Brit Marling’s script which says something like ‘look a bit bamboozled at the daft thing your colleague has just said as though (once again) it’s the most absurd thing you’ve ever heard in your life’.
Technically, the 80-minute episode has been dubbed as ’daring’, presumably this is on account of the thermal night vision shots which are possibly there to make you think about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, while there are quite a number of scenes giving you a very specific point-of-view perspective à la the Peep Show boys. Given time, this might turn out to be a brutal and edgy satire, but for now, it’s a lame duck of a show.
Babylon is on Channel 4, Sunday 9 February, 9pm.