The feature length Babylon pilot episode shown earlier in the year gained a lot of attention, largely thanks to its provenance. The police comedy drama was co-created by Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, the scribes behind Peep Show and Fresh Meat, along with one of the most talented directors in the UK, Danny Boyle. Cop dramas are the bread and butter of UK broadcasters and Channel 4 had really pushed the boat out for this one with a top cast including James Nesbitt, Paterson Joseph, Daniel Kaluuya, Adam Deacon and US star Brit Marling as the Metropolitan police’s new Director of Communications.
Despite the talent involved however, the pilot didn’t quite gel. Inconsistent tone, issues of pacing and a lack of focus stopped Babylon from making the impression it should have and dampened expectations somewhat for the full series to follow.
The first episode of that series has managed to address the pilot’s issues, hammering out the dents to deliver an entertaining and compelling drama. Like a mash-up of ITV’s long running The Bill and the razor-sharp satire of The Thick Of It, Babylon is a topical dramatisation that goes behind the scenes of police duties and the force’s attempts to maintain its public image. It depicts pressure being felt at all levels, from Nesbitt’s Commissioner Richard Miller to the officers on the ground who keep each other going with strong camaraderie, though even that’s under threat from internal passions. It’s closely observed stuff, featuring one ongoing thread where an officer is in constant fear of retribution for a bungled shooting, echoing similar events that sparked the Tottenham riots a few years back.
There’s something very traditional yet contemporary about Babylon, the latest in a long line of police dramas that have been crowded out of late by TV’s obsession with glossy investigative series and grisly serial killer showcases. It features all the elements you’d expect, from the hardnosed Chief, to the young rowdy upstart, the politician who makes life harder for everyone, and a touch of illegal activity that could end a career.
Cast-wise, it’s hard not to get echoes of human Rottweiler Malcom Tucker with Nesbitt’s Miller, not a big surprise considering Bain and Armstrong both worked on The Thick Of It. Nesbitt does an admirable job playing both Miller’s calm and assured public face and his private face which would tear yours off if you ever crossed him.
With Babylon, Bain and Armstrong have scored two major coups. A comedy drama that gets the balance right and makes the British police force look exciting. This is a tentpole production for Channel 4 and has finally delivered on its promise of being one of the most gripping and relentlessly entertaining new shows this year.
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