Sundance’s Babylon Is As Pleasurable As a Serious Show Can Be

Jonny Sweet, James Nesbitt, and Paterson Joseph in the SundanceTV original series Babylon. Photo Credit: Dean Rogers Photo: Dean Rogers/Sundance

The cop drama Babylon is as purely pleasurable as a show can be while still being serious. Though this six-part SundanceTV series is credited to a bomb crew of talents — including writers and producers Robert Jones, Jesse Armstrong, and Sam Bain, and feature filmmaker Danny Boyle — it has a singular vision, albeit one that doesn’t necessarily come into focus in the pilot, which is mainly concerned with introducing the characters and their jobs. American indie-film up-and-comer Brit Marling (the writer and star of Another Earth and Sound of My Voice) plays the show’s lone Yank, Liz Garvey, who’s imported to the United Kingdom to serve as the London Police Department’s director of communications. She’s the audience surrogate, at least for the U.S. market, learning the lay of the land, putting out media fires, and bantering with flinty-eyed Police Commissioner Richard Miller (James Nesbitt), a scowling, old-school ass-kicker whose knack for invectives evokes the endlessly quotable political satire The Thick of It (which Armstrong worked on). (“I want you to collapse your spine like a squid and disappear through a crack in the window,” he snarls at a subordinate.)

The original, Boyle-directed series pilot, in which Liz joined the Department just as a sniper began terrorizing London, isn’t part of the current U.S. series run, but if anything, the show benefits from throwing audiences into the middle of things. The premiere (technically episode two) deals with a revolt at a youth correctional facility that police PR handlers try to label a “severe disturbance” so the press won’t use the word riot and give the public the impression that they’ve lost control, which they have. There’s a secondary, related battle happening in the corridors of the London Police Department, with Miller getting verbally lashed for his 20th-century-law-enforcement attitude, often by colleagues who have a personal or financial interest in privatizing operations that used to be reserved for public servants only.

But soon enough, we realize that Babylon is more a portrait of a particular world and key subcultures within it: the police brass and their office handlers; the media churning through daily cycles of outrage and scandal; the workday blokes in the tactical units. The real star of the show is the pace of modern urban life. Although Boyle didn’t personally direct any of the episodes airing in this U.S. run, Babylon takes its cue from his distinctive (though often criticized) style, which leaps from moment to moment at lightning speed, so fast that you sometimes have to struggle to keep up. The characters think fast, talk fast, act fast.

Events unreel so quickly that nobody has time to properly process anything, much less think about what it means or sort through their feelings. Mere weeks ago, Liz was in the States working for Insta­gram. Now she’s been installed in a plum job that most assumed would go to the scheming communications deputy, Finn (Bertie Carvel), who hates the fact that he has to eat his disappointment and serve under this stylish blonde American, no questions asked. Other supporting characters likewise seem to have the world by the short hairs, only to suffer a sudden reversal of fortune that threatens to turn them into a laughingstock, like Deputy Commissioner Charles Inglis (Paterson Joseph), who wanders out of a drugstore during a phone call without putting down the bottle of shampoo in his hand and gets charged with theft. (That he’s bald only adds to his sense of injury.) A young officer named Robbie (Adam Deacon), who’s first introduced at the prison riot (sorry, “disturbance”), undergoes weapons training and joins a tactical unit, feeling a keen sense of power and accomplishment. But his insecurity, impulsiveness, and genial thick-headedness may prove to be his undoing; seeds of unease are planted immediately, by way of a documentarian named Matt Coward (Daniel Kaluuya), who instantly sizes up Robbie as a potential cautionary tale and starts gathering footage of him bragging, clowning, and otherwise acting the fool, like a hangman collecting string for his noose.

As if that weren’t enough to keep things thumbscrew-tense, the series adds a claustrophobic layer of social-media scrutiny and video surveillance, so every time something important happens, you’re thinking like a cop, a criminal, or a public-relations person, asking, “Which facts are undeniable thanks to electronic evidence, and which can be denied, dismissed, or spun?” Babylon often replays events from multiple vantage points and only the first one is “real”; the others show the event as captured by a cell-phone camera, TV-news camera, or surveillance camera. Everything is recorded, but that doesn’t mean you can’t lie: It just means you have to tell the sorts of lies that could alter whatever narrative has already been constructed, or learn enough about the technology to defeat it (as when a more experienced officer in Robbie’s unit removes the outward-facing cameras affixed to the breastplates of his tactical uniform). The show will cut from, say, a ground-level shot of people in a restaurant or office or government building to a high-angle shot of the same scene as viewed through the lens of a surveillance camera, date and time duly noted in the corner of the screen. After a while, you find yourself thinking like the show’s always-on-the-defensive characters: Well, you can see they were together at this moment, but you can’t hear what they were discussing. You can’t just rail at how things are; you have to understand them and adapt to them. It’s surely not coincidental that some of the series’ harshest insults compare human beings to outmoded machines or consumer products. “You’re obsolete technology, Finn,” Liz says, warning him to quit interfering with her plans to start a police-controlled news network. “You are a solar-powered fax machine.”

Early on, Miller compares his job to fixing the engine of a moving train, which is not a bad description of Babylon, a series whose undercurrent of fatalism might be unpleasant if the characters weren’t so corrosively funny. One thing leads to another and another and another; jobs change, administrations change, lives change, in days, hours, seconds. The characters just have to suck it up and adapt, even as they read blog posts and tweets about their predicaments and feel misunderstood, used, or (often deservedly) shamed. The Shakespeare quote about how the world is a stage and all of us mere players gets a high-tech update here: The first question in a character’s mind after getting sacked or humiliated or making a terrible, public mistake is not “How did this happen to me?” but “What can I say on TV or Twitter that will make this go away?” Even the hard-driving Liz seems one or two misfortunes away from an irreversible career-death plunge; whether it comes via her coke-head ex-boyfriend, her glowering boss, or the openly disdainful Finn (the kind of sleazeball who chews gum at a funeral), you just know it’s coming, and she’d better have a statement ready.

*This article appears in the January 12, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.