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10 February 2014 - 7:26am | posted by | 1 comment

Review: Babylon - episode 1

Review: Babylon - episode 1Review: Babylon - episode 1

With all the build up publicity, it was difficult to know what to expect from Babylon. It could have been Prime Suspect for the PR sector or another comedy looking at how silly the police were - although it was never likely to be The Thin Blue Line with Rowan Atkinson (remember that?) if it was going out at 9pm on a Sunday night on Channel 4.

Touted as the latest from the imaginings of Danny Boyle and the writers of Peep Show, the trailer promised a drama series with a comedy element - and in many ways that's what we got, although it never lost its real-world surroundings as it incorporated its elements of black humour.

Just prior to Babylon airing, it was announced that a series had already been commissioned - presumably a tantalising boast by the network that what we were going to see was up to the hype. The announcement probably helped the viewer realise that what they were watching was more than just a one-off drama laying the grounds for more to come.

The plot followed the first day of London City Police's new head of Comms, Liz Garvey (Brit Marling) as a lone gunman begins to shoot random victims around the city. We see her dealings with top brass at head office, including Commissioner Richard Miller (James Nesbitt) along with producers of a reality TV police series involving police officers and their dogs, that would work well on Freesat somewhere, while also intercutting with officers on the front line.

Most of the humour came through the officers out in the field. Beginning with a dawn raid that saw a half naked man from the waste down, and his dog, both being tazered. And it's here that the programme makes its first pertinent statement - which is that the police have become a law unto themselves and all that is keeping them in check is not their regulations - but mobile media and the recording of situations by the public.

This happens again later on when one member of a bus of protesters films an officer's (Adam Deacon) reaction to being spat at - saving the culprit from physical retribution.

The same officer, Robbie, and his team are also the subject of another reality TV series being filmed, which picks him up as an unlikely star due to his off the cuff and non PC (pun intended) reactions to situations.

Back at base Garvey, hand picked for the job following a Ted Talks speech, is attempting to win over her team and her bosses, while struggling with her duplicitous deputy, who is angry at having not gotten the top job himself.

There are moments which could have fallen into The Thick of It territory, and why not as they are fishing in a similar pond, although this didn't have quite the same bite. Moments such as Garvey being offered a swivel chair to stand on to address the Comms team, or some of the back biting, was verging on Thick of It territory.

Once again, the media is treated as the enemy, although Garvey sees social media as a way of bypassing the need to inform the traditional broadcasting routes to speak directly to the public. This plays out nicely with the shooter doing exactly the same thing over Twitter during the climax.

There's plenty to discuss and admire during this 90 minutes, and it has a lot left to say. It's no wonder Channel 4 sees potential in Babylon, which leaves many threads to explore for when it picks it all back up later in the year. This first instalment is definitely worth revisiting before then. I'm certain the CIPR and PRCA will be issuing it as necessary viewing too before we see any more.


13 Feb 2014 - 00:07

Thank christ for this. Was starting to think maybe I'd lost my mind with the colossal lakes of bile being poured all over this from all quarters. But I respect The Drum's opinion more than the public so that's all to the good.

Frankly I can't help but think a lot of the disappointment this was greeted by was all down to really poor publicity. Almost every complaint I've read describes it as not being as funny as people expected or not being The Thick of It, which makes me wonder if it wasn't marketed in utterly the wrong way. I watch everything on demand so saw no trailers and wasn't really expecting a comedy; it was a pretty black drama looking at how surveillance, communications and its relationship with the public have made policing in the modern age an utter nightmare. There's some humour in there and some of it rang a bit false; attempting to introduce farce and a bit too much burlesque comedy of errors stuff around directions for staging an armed raid kinda just undermined the tension at key points. But it definitely has potential to be a police procedural with some much needed existential anxiety. I guess it just needs to define itself a bit better and that will come from distancing itself from the comedy drama label and really experimenting with an interesting subject matter.

Given the police's relationship to this complex organisational chaos is only going to become more volatile and they're behaviour ever more monitored and questioned by the public, I think this may be a vital vehicle to analyse this stuff.


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