Set during a ludicrous season in hell for London’s Metropolitan Police Service (MPS), Babylon deserves credit for depicting timely subject matter with a palpable, though ultimately limited, degree of toughness. In the wake of an Armed Response Unit (ARU) officer, Warwick (Nick Blood), gunning down an unarmed robber, the MPS’s publicity and communications team, run by Liz Garvey (Brit Marling) and Finn (Bertie Carvel), find themselves scrambling to spin a variety of scandals for the department, almost all of which lies at the feet of Commissioner Miller (James Nesbitt). The series opens with Nesbitt’s steely head honcho rapidly answering a number of questions in what may seem like an onslaught by the press, but is actually training by Garvey and her team. It’s a familiar bait and switch, and it speaks to the show’s fascination with the gap between public appearance and the origins of such calibrated illusions manufactured by PR spinsters.
As Garvey and Warwick look over footage from his incident, she points out that it doesn’t matter that the suspect didn’t have a gun, because it looked like he had one. Later, a similar killing by the ARU proves to be less easy to excuse, and in an all too familiar strategy, Finn attempts to blame the victim via a strategically picked photo, wherein the young black man is smoking a joint. The rift between professional responsibility and personal morals makes up a great deal of the drama, which occasionally proves riveting, especially when Miller, a would-be reformer in the MPS, must weather revelations of multiple infidelities. Similarly intriguing is the rivalry between Deputy Commissioner Inglis (Paterson Joseph) and Assistant Commissioner Franklin (Nicola Walker), which pits a groomed but untrustworthy leader with old philosophies against an unsteady yet ambitious faux-radical.
In these sequences, Babylon nears the sort of immediately involving procedural drama that Paul Greengrass has refined, and the cast sells the glut of the technical talk with worn-in finesse and zippy timing. The show’s acerbic humor, however, which often suggests the acerbic wit of Armando Iannucci, feels grafted on, even when the lines sing. Babylon wants to both mock the no-bull crassness of political wheelers and dealers and cling to a moralistic view of government, and the writers fail to find cohesion between these two perspectives more times than not. As a result, the humor often feels dulled by the relevancy of the subject matter, and the politics come off as both self-serious and frivolous.
This is no truer than in the show’s treatment of the ARU, a subject that encompasses both gun violence in the U.K. and the prospect of police privatization. Though there’s something to be said for the way the film plainly depicts the real dangers and frustrations of working in law enforcement, there’s a conspicuous absence of empathy for the public or their perspectives. When the ARU, which also includes hotheads Banjo (Andrew Brooke) and Robbie (Adam Deacon), decide to strike, a response to them being fingered as co-conspirators in a deplorable cover-up, mobs of people begin fighting, looting, and destroying property in the streets of London. With the notable but fleeting exception of a victim’s family, the creators feel no need to show the face of a rightfully indignant public, just the turmoil of being public servants who enact crimes and willfully excuse themselves in the name of loyalty.
The decision to excise the public’s outrage, and the myriad underpinnings of said fury, in reaction to municipal malfeasance would be a lot easier to swallow if the series didn’t constantly reiterate the shaky moralism of the ARU and MPS, especially in the personage of Marling’s character; the sardonic, biting tone of the dialogue feels distinctly false coming from her. That the work of these agencies and their uncountable employees and branches is damn near impossible, especially if you want to look halfway decent in the eye of the public, is a fair point to make, but it isn’t a unique one. Nor have the creators of Babylon, including executive producer Danny Boyle, found a particularly new way to present it, unless you count the sheer amount of storylines being covered, which, on top of those mentioned, also includes the doings of the MPS officers on the beat. The tonnage of characters, plots, and subplots gives a quasi-convincing feel of the immediate pace of these positions, and of the constant availability of information in the age of social media, but by the anticlimactic finale, even these feel feigned, an involving spin story hiding the nastier, uglier, and far more challenging causes and realities of governmental and police corruption underneath.