Babylon review: James Nesbitt & Brit Marling shine in this much-improved police satire (Spoilers)

by Matt D
Babylon Channel 4

Babylon Channel 4

Back in February, Channel 4 aired a one-off comedy drama entitled Babylon; a satire written by Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong and directed by Danny Boyle. Although the team behind Babylon was impressive I wasn’t overly taken with the ninety minute pilot as I thought it was poorly-paced and had far too many characters. However, upon watching the first episode of this full series, things are looking positive for Babylon as the pace has improved, the tone doesn’t feel as confused and the multiple characters are well-utilised.

Babylon’s basic aim is to satirise the inner-workings of the Metropolitan Police with a particular focus on the organisation’s PR department. As we saw in the pilot, the PR department had a new face in the form of ruthless American Liz Garvey who clashed with established PR chief Finn over the position. Unfortunately for Liz, she is still having problems with getting Commissioner Miller to work with her successfully. In trying to prepare her for his grilling from the deputy mayor, Liz organises a mock interview however Miller doesn’t take the process at all seriously. This later proves to be his downfall as the meeting with the Deputy Mayor doesn’t go at all well and leads to Miller criticises Liz’s work. Liz also appears to be facing criticism from Finn but tentatively forms a truce with him in order to pool their collective resources. However, it’s later revealed that he’s manipulating her due to a story involving a fictitious wife.

Brit Marling

Babylon’s main focus this week is on a riot at a young offenders’ prison; with Bain and Armstrong using the incident to comment on the private sector’s dominance of these institutions. Bain and Armstrong’s well-observed script was perfectly exemplified by the early conversation between Deputy Commissioner Inglis and Securamax representative Vanessa Peters on whether the event could be classed as a riot. Instead they argued it down from a riot to a severe disturbance but when the prisoners took over the institution it was finally time to call the police in. This incident was brilliantly handled from Finn’s dealing with the baying press to Sharon Franklin’s negotiations with the prisoners themselves. I particularly enjoyed Sharon’s line about stuffed crust pizza which was one of three or our lines throughout Babylon that had me laughing out loud. I felt that Bain and Armstrong relished in showing the behind-the-scenes politics of the prison riot as Finn and Liz decided to expose all of Securamax’s failings.

Although I found the scripting of Babylon a lot tighter than in the pilot, I still found there was an over-abundance of characters who were surplus to requirements. For example; Robbie, Davinia and Clarkey of the Territorial Support Group are characters who didn’t really felt like they fit into the satirical part of the story. Although their presence was partly the focus of a faux behind-the-scenes documentary I personally wasn’t bothered about the story concerning Robbie’s last day on the job and the fact that he might meet his maker. Although they were finally called in to handle the prison riot their link to the main story was tenuous at best. Better handled were Officer Warwick’s continued problems firing a gun, following his shooting of an innocent man in a takeaway. Warwick at least felt more connected to the main story as he came into contact with Liz after she decided to air the footage of the event in order to be more honest with the public. But the result proved devastating for Warwick as he became increasingly paranoid when he learnt that a bounty had been put on his head. However, I have to say that I struggled to care about Warwick’s story and I wasn’t overly bothered when he attacked a delivery man who he believed was out to get him.

Bertie Carvel

After watching this first episode of Babylon, it appears that Bain and Armstrong have definitely decided what tone they want for the series. The satirical humour was well-incorporated into the more serious story of the prison riot and the majority of the gags worked well. Additionally, Bain and Armstrong appear to have given some of their characters more backstory, presumably in an attempt to get us to sympathise with them. Liz in particular is shown as somebody who is struggling to find friends in London due to her insistence on constantly discussing work. In one of the earlier scenes she attempts to socialise with Mia and some of her other friends, but the night seemingly ends in disaster. In one of the episode’s most emotional moments, Liz overhears Mia’s plans to lie to her about another social engagement due to the fact that none of her friends found the PR guru particularly likeable. Liz’s loneliness also sees her connect with a former lover who is seemingly no good for her and will no doubt cause her plenty of heartbreak.

Babylon’s other key strength is that it has a fantastic ensemble cast most of whom are adept are dealing with the rhythm of Bain and Armstrong’s satirical dialogue. James Nesbitt proves that he’s a versatile actor by playing the sarcastic and authoritative Richard Miller in Babylon whilst at the same time portraying a grieving father in The Missing. Nesbitt makes the dialogue even funnier by playing the role completely straight and as a result making the humorous dialogue all the more funny. Brit Marling is perfectly cast as the no-nonsense PR guru who can hold her own in a male-dominated environment but at the same time is incredibly lonely. The always fabulous Nicola Walker is a brilliant addition to the cast as Sharon, who is forced to deal with the riots and who doesn’t seem happy about the demands the prisoners are making. Elsewhere, Bertie Carvel is razor sharp as the despicable Finn while Jonny Sweet is absolutely hilarious as Miller’s clueless assistant.

It’s fair to say that I enjoyed this episode of Babylon a lot more than I did the original pilot. The primary reason for this is that the tone is clearer and the satirical dialogue is a lot sharper. Bain and Armstrong’s decision to make us sympathise with the character of Liz was also a wise one as I feel it’s important to have at least one person we relate to. The cast are almost universally great with Nesbitt and Walker’s contributions being particularly memorable. While Babylon is still far from perfect, primarily because of the surfeit of secondary characters, this instalment was far superior to what we were offered in February and marks Bain and Armstrong’s satire out as a potential hit.

What did you think to Babylon? Will you be sticking with it?

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