Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, creators of Peep Show and writers for The Thick of It, have overextended themselves with Babylon, the Danny Boyle-directed feature-length pilot for a new series to be broadcast later this year on Channel 4. Attempting to be a comedy drama, the show never finds a balance between the two genres. It seesaws from cheap one-liners to po-faced melodrama at such a rate to induce nausea in the viewer.
The story follows the first day of Liz Garvey (played by Sundance starlet Brit Marling), a PR guru assigned to improve the public image of the Metropolitan Police. As luck would have it, it’s the same day as a lone gunman is on the loose in London, shooting down policemen.
The police force itself is the show’s biggest problem – for two reasons. Firstly, Bain and Armstrong give us far too many characters to follow, literally tens of policemen whose minimal character development is spread thinly over Babylon’s 95 minutes. The show would have been so much better with a few nuanced characters, rather than a gazillion caricatures.
Secondly, all of the police are unbelievably stupid. This profound stupidity might have worked in a sitcom setting, but it just comes across as bizarre under the highly realistic, knowingly cool direction of Danny Boyle. Of course, Babylon is aimed at satirising the boys in blue, but the satire fails miserably because so much of the story is frustratingly ludicrous. Garvey turns out to be the most compelling character, simply because she was the only character who bothers to use her brain.
At the end of the episode, Bain and Armstrong’s attempt to inject some intrigue again falls flat on its face. Garvey is leaving the office after a hard day’s bewilderment when Finn, an officer she fired earlier in the story (Bertie Carvel in a career low point), steps out from the shadows. He then proceeds to blackmail her, saying that if he doesn’t regain his job, he’ll go public with Garvey’s wages. One could see it as a play on the police and other public institutions obsession with financial transparency, but even so, this is limp satire and even worse drama.
For me, the question that arose during this lame attempt at a cliff-hanger was not ‘will Garvey succumb to Finn’s demands?’ but ‘why should I care in the first place?’.
Christian Butler is a writer and musician based in London.